Thursday, June 18, 2020

Murder In Mississippi (Joseph P. Mawra, 1965)

I've now watched three films by Joseph P Mawra, if you count Miss Leslie's Dolls, directed by Joseph G Prieto, who might be the same person. Drive-in grindhouse movie producers of the 1960s did not leave comprehensive paperwork behind. Either way, this is more of a chance than I'll give some legitimately great directors, so what gives? After all, the first thing I saw from him was Shanty Tramp, a film which treats lynching and interracial sex as equally shocking and taboo. I realise this kind of exploitation movie is meant to shock and discomfort, but I'm not sure the aim is to leave you firmly convinced that everyone involved in writing, producing and directing this is a piece of shit.

But Mawra is not a criminal! It's society that's the criminal, man! Murder in Mississippi suggests that Mawra only made Shanty Tramp because the demand for racist pornography in 1960s America was so intense that if he hadn't filled it, someone else would have. This is not, I grant you, much of an excuse, but putting the disengaged, half-arsed Shanty Tramp next to the dynamic, relentless Murder in Mississippi makes it easy to see which story lit a fire under the director. It's the latter, and it's an explicitly anti-racist story.

Obviously Murder in Mississippi is still thousands of miles south from tasteful. Tarantino would blanche at the amount of racial slurs, and any violence meted out on its female lead reliably ends up ripping the neckline of her dress down to the bra. The pressures of the poverty row production often show - there's one scene where a character misses his mark falling over and ends up in the shadow of the camera. But there are also tightly constructed montages of looming, leering racists in vivid noir lighting, and the plot - involving racist Southern policemen trying to cover up their murder of a civil rights activist - is both tawdry enough to work as a sleazy Z-movie and genuinely provocative.

It ends in exactly the way Shanty Tramp doesn't, with a speech from Lyndon Baines Johnson about the evil of racism. There are also lengthy scenes where the heroes register African-Americans to vote, and persuade them that voting can make a difference. I imagine a lot of the original audience would have regarded this as rank filler, but viewed with over fifty years' difference it's a lot less dull than the endless whipping and slapping that pad out Mawra's other films. There is a real anger to this, and its tasteless aspects amplify, rather than undercut, the moral fury. --Graham Williamson, Letterboxd