02/27/2014 01:02 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

How Mississippi Burning Helped Get Justice for Slain Civil Rights Workers

In June 2005, a frail octogenarian, Edgar Ray Killen was wheeled from a Mississippi courtroom, having been convicted on three counts of manslaughter in the deaths of three young Civil Rights workers 41 years previously. At the time, the local district attorney, Mark Duncan, said of the conviction, "At least we won't be painted or described, or known throughout the world by a Hollywood movie any more. " The movie he was referring to was my film, Mississippi Burning.

The reason for the re-opening of the case and the new trial was largely due to the tenacity of one investigative journalist, Jerry Mitchell, of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. The Village Voice reported that Mitchell had been spurred on in his extraordinary 16-year quest for justice after seeing the very same film: Mississippi Burning.

In December of 1987, preparing the film, I stood with my producer, the late Bob Colesberry, on a bend of a narrow red-dirt road in Nashoba County in rural Mississippi. With the help of an armful of maps and old newspaper cuttings, the redoubtable Vietnam vet Colesberry had pinpointed the exact spot where the young Civil Rights workers, Mickey Schwerner (24), Andrew Goodman (20) and James Chaney (21) had been beaten and shot to death on June 21, 1964. Bob and I stood there in silence for a few minutes, realizing that true life and death are much more important than the movies.

My film has garnered praise and scorn in equal measure over the years. On release, the controversy the movie engendered took us, and the studio, by surprise. Political controversy surrounding a film is still rare because, in the main, the output of Hollywood has always been apolitical: striving not to take sides -- not for any moral reasons, just that polemics are not good for business. Suddenly, with Mississippi Burning, the controversy got out of hand. It was impossible to turn on TV without someone discussing the movie -- or using the movie to trigger the debate. Often it was black politicians and activists attacking the film, but also attacking one another, because there certainly was no consensus in the black community towards the film.

At the heart of the criticism was the fact that the black Civil Rights struggle had somehow been usurped by a bunch of white guys: on and off the screen. This is understandable. Those who had actually fought the Civil Rights battles had a proprietorial sense of that moment in history: their moment in history. The subject deserved many films and many had already been made for cinema and TV and frankly, been ignored. Mississippi Burning happened to be the first one that had made any impact on a global scale with its media visibility, box office and showy Oscar nominations. For myself, I was somewhat bemused by it all. In the beginning it was rather nice to have your film talked about, but suddenly the tide turned and although it did well at the box office, we were dogged by a lot of anger that the film generated. I gulped for a while as people used the film as a political football to further their own agendas, but realized the most important thing of all: suddenly everyone was discussing the odious effects of racism in America.

Also, we were attacked by veteran journalists who had actually reported on the Nashoba County murders. The film was made 25 years after the event and so the venerable journalists who had covered it were glad to be wheeled out to box the ears of this whippersnapper movie. Journalists have always had a problem with this form -- the union of drama and historical fact -- because the sacred rule of good journalism is the preservation of corroborated facts, which cannot and should not be messed with. Cinema and the dramatic arts work in a different way. Movies are an artistic expression, which communicates viscerally. Great cinema is as much about ideas and possibilities as it is about facts.

To recreate a time and place with maximum authenticity and diligence; to recreate dramatic situations which have an air of reality about them; to write in a language that's not phony and is acted in a way that's naturalistic as opposed to theatrical should be just good filmmaking. When all these elements come together and combust, then delicate nerve ends are touched in the audience and suddenly a new set of rules comes into play. Somehow, the moral high ground becomes more lofty -- the rules become tougher -- but every so often, and ever more rarely, a movie can transcend the 'entertainment' we filmmakers are ordered to provide by our financial masters. Not all films have to be the bastard child of the video game and the special effects movie. Sometimes films can be about something and remain in the audience's consciousness, long after they've left the cinema. Sometimes, they can provoke debate. Sometimes, a film can inspire others to seek and achieve justice 41 years later for those three, very young men who were murdered on that red-dirt road in Mississippi.

For a longer version of this and other essays on the subject visit