Dawn Porter’s first feature documentary, Gideon’s Army, had an eye toward the future in telling the story of young public defenders fighting for justice. The film brought her a great deal of acclaim as well as exposure at prestigious festivals like Sundance and AFI Docs. Now with Spies of Mississippi, which premieres on PBS Monday night February 10 at 10 PM [check local listings], Porter has an eye on the past, in a story that also reverberates eerily in our present. The film reveals the full scope of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission’s [MSSC] efforts to preserve segregation during the 1950s and ‘60s — when its network of informants spied on over 87,000 Americans — as it covered up violence and murder in order to preserve the status quo.
“Weaving together fascinating interviews with images of the Commission’s surveillance photos and thousands upon thousands of files on the people they watched – some of them active civil rights workers, others everyday people,” wrote Zeba Blay on Indiewire, “Spies of Mississippi is as cohesive as it is engaging, another interesting portrait of a time in our past too often regarded as a sort of ancient history. ” Robert Lloyd in the LA Times calls it “eye-opening.”
We chatted with Porter, who, before becoming a filmmaker, was Director of News Standards and Practices at ABC News and Vice President of Standards and Practices at A&E Networks, about the film and what drew her to the subject.
There have of course been many other films about the Civil Rights Movement; how is Spies of Mississippi different than previous films on that history? What attracted you to this story when you first ran across it that you thought would make for an interesting film?
Before I heard this story I thought I knew a lot about the era. That’s what is so wonderful about history — if we look, there are more things to find. Many people know about the FBI’s efforts to undermine the civil rights leaders, but very few people knew of the network established by Mississippi state government. And that’s what really attracted me to this story; this is not a story of a few rogue racist individuals, it’s state government, using taxpayer dollars to deny rights to a group of people based on race. I think it’s a remarkable story about abuse of power and how secrecy is not always a friend to democracy.
What surprised you the most about this history when you were researching it for the film?
I was surprised by so many things, but clearly one of the most shocking was the information about the black informants. The idea that African Americans would spy for white supremacists probably should not shock me, but it did. Second, I feel like this fills in a piece of the puzzle regarding the tragic deaths of the young civil rights workers [James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner]. They didn’t have an accidental run in with the racist police or the Klan, they were tracked using information from spies.
I was shocked to learn that the State of Mississippi, not just the FBI, used spies to try and intimidate and stop integration. When I learned that some of them were black I wanted to know what would motivate people. Digging into the story, it makes sense that there were complicated feelings in the African American community about the marchers and civil rights activity. There was a lot of fear.
After Gideon’s Army and this film, do you find yourself more cynical about American justice and rights…?
Just the opposite! I am so proud of the young people who are fighting for all our rights every day. The civil rights activists were also fighting an unseen enemy and yet they did not let that deter them. The public defenders do battle every day and I am so proud of the lawyers in Gideon’s Army for what they stand for.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
More footage of [black civil rights activist who spied for the MSSC] Robert Bolden, but he was very weak and the audio was not strong.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
I love when Horace Harned [a former Mississippi State legislator, a member of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, and segregationist] talks about not being intimidated by the marchers – how the jails were full. I think you get a sense that he is still quite a character.
After filming the interview with Harned, his daughter and son let us film in his home and there was a big Confederate flag in the living room. I don’t know if they noticed but I did…
Before becoming a filmmaker, you had a background working in television news and standards and practices. What did you take from that experience that has helped you as a filmmaker?
Be persistent, be fair, and be brave. You are the only one waiting for your film, everyone else’s attention you have to earn.
Can you tell us anything about the New Jim Crow film you’re working on?
Yes! I’m very excited about the opportunity to work with noted author and activist Michelle Alexander. We have a remarkable character in one of the 8 people who recently were released from prison after having a sentenced commuted by the President. This young man was sentenced to life in prison for his first drug offense at the age of 19. He’s gotten out 21 years later and we will follow him. This is the new Jim Crow, overly long sentences leaving men of color to live life as second-class citizens. I hope to do justice to Michelle’s remarkable book.
What are your three favorite films?
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