Freedom on My Mind (1993): Documentary on Mississippi Voter Registration Project

Sundance Film Fest 1993–A look at a radical era of the past is provided by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford in Freedom on My Mind, a chronicle of the Mississippi Voter Registration Project between 1961 and 1964, the most tumultuous years in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

The idea behind the project was to register half-a million black voters and pull a reluctant federal government into the battle for equality. Like Seeing Red, the style and format are rather conventional, but the fascinating material brought out to the open a still little-known issue.

As an authentic story of empowerment and change, Freedom On My Mind put to shame Hollywood’s fiction movies about the Civil Rights Movement, most notably Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1989) and Bob Reiner’s The Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), which examined the same events from a strictly white perspective.

Field and Mulford set out to make a fictionalized feature, but the events of that pivotal Freedom Summer were too sweeping and complex to fit the constraints of a narrative. Wishing to analyze the relationships between blacks and whites from different points of view, they worked with two writers–one who told the story from the point of view of a white woman, the other from the perspective of a black organizer. But the treatments were not satisfactory, and they decided to capture the events with a documentary.

The filmmakers were familiar with the subject. Field went to Mississippi as a summer volunteer, and Mulford served as an apprentice to radical the filmmaker Leo Hurwitz, and later directed the documentary The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1981). Unlike the PBS documentary, Eyes on the Prize, Freedom on My Mind is not a survey of the period, but an impassioned oral history.

Instead of relying on voice-over narration (which is minimal, by Ronnie Washington), and dates and facts, Freedom on My Mind allows the individuals involved in the struggle to revisit history and tell their stories in their own words. During the filmmaking, which took seven years to complete, one of the main subjects, Robert Moses (a former organizer), was reluctant to be interviewed; he was still haunted by the events of that period. But as Field and Mulford got to know him, Moses began to open up, forcing himself to come to terms with the experience.

While researching the film, the directors were able to track down photographs of the subjects as young activists. The archival footage, some of which has not been seen since it was shot in the 1960s, accounted for one third of the budget, which amounted to $850,000. Other scenes had surprising sources. In 1964, after appearing in West Side Story, actor Richard Beymer traveled to Mississippi as a volunteer, and while there he made a documentary, which is used in the opening scene.

At the center are the recollections of a few black people, mostly Mississippi sharecroppers. Their personal stories show how “second class” citizens, with no education, power, or experience gained new meanings as a result of membership in the movement. L. C. Dorsey, a sharecropper’s daughter, whose father was illiterate, says involvement in the movement provided a new identity and a new hope for the future. And Curtis Hayes recalls how he translated his fascination with biblical myths into the interracial “David and Goliath” story.

The docu’s most exciting segment chronicles the fateful summer, when white middle-class students from all over the country went to Mississippi. The courage of the students and the media attention to their actions added to the movement’s national visibility. Black members stress the novelty of their encounters with whites–how they were not used to be called by first names. As a system, racism has become institutionalized down to the most personal interactions.

If education was perceived as a way to gain political consciousness, voting was seen as means to break the rigid caste system. But the movement also performed personal functions, helping to forge identities and supplying membership in larger collectives than one’s family. As one member says: “All my life I felt odd and then I felt like home.” The activists had to fight racism on two fronts, of American society and of the Democratic Party itself. This led to the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), whose plan was to unseat the all-white segregationist delegates to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.

It’s a testimony to grass root politics that the 68-member MFDP delegation consisted of sharecroppers, maids, and laborers. And though the battle didn’t result in immediate victory, it did show how the highest political authority could be challenged when the struggle concerns equality and justice.