Eyes Wide Shut | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Eyes Wide Shut

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Filmmaker Myra Ottewell speaks at the premiere of "Mississippi ReMixed."

About four years ago, a colleague invited Myra Ottewell, a native Jacksonian and teacher in British Columbia, to speak to his class after they viewed "Mississippi Burning," the 1988 movie about the murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in Philadelphia, Miss. in 1964. Expecting a discussion about her home state, Ottewell was met with skepticism. She was defensive, they said, and they dismissed her as "an ignorant white woman who couldn't see beyond her picket fence."

From the experience, Ottewell was compelled to examine the beliefs she grew up with, about the relationships between blacks and whites, and about how far the Magnolia State had come since the Civil Rights Era. "Mississippi ReMixed" is the result.

At its best, the documentary is a story of one woman's struggle to come to terms with a brutal history she was blissfully unaware of for decades. Although she grew up in the midst of the Civil Rights Era—graduating from Provine High School in 1964 and attending Mississippi State College for Women—the people of Ottewell's idyllic white upbringing clearly sheltered her from seeing the reality of the economic and social norm of the day: white supremacy. And not seeing it, she had no impetus to examine it. The experience of seeing through the slats of her black maid's shotgun-house walls to the yard seems to have been curiously unaffecting. She knew she wasn't supposed to drink from the colored water fountain at the zoo, but couldn't say why.

"Everybody knew their place," she says in "Mississippi ReMixed." And that place, for a middle-class white kid growing up in Jackson after World War II—whether she knew it or not—was one of power and privilege. That understanding was a revelation to Ottewell.

"How could I have been so sheltered and so naive to have been raised here and not have felt more about it or known more about it?" asks her childhood friend Caroline, a Jackson State professor, about the vicious realities of racism. It's a question central to Ottewell's journey. Whites could "love" their black domestics, could even play with black children, as long as those blacks also knew their place. It was a simple, brutal code of behavior entrenched in Mississippi society for hundreds of years, one with echoes that persist in the present.

Ottewell interviews numerous personalities working for racial justice in modern-day Mississippi. From Carlton Turner of Turner World Around Productions, she learns that the economic plight of many of today's black Mississippians is not because of some mythical "racial work habits," but because of institutionalized racism dating back centuries.

Ottewell discovers that her great-great grandfather got his 240 acres free through the federal swamp land grant of 1850. Owning land was a whites-only cornerstone that allowed her family to survive the Great Depression. Federal and state laws well into the mid-20th century kept blacks in their place: subservient, tied to cotton plantations and isolated from any opportunity for social or economic advancement.

From Susan Glisson of the William Winter Institute, she learns about the activities of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. From Gov. Winter, that racism was thoroughly entrenched in Mississippi. She learns of her father's complicity in keeping blacks out of her white neighborhood. She talks with Brad "Kamikaze" Franklin about black apathy, Dolphus Weary about black inferiority, with JFP editor-in-chief Donna Ladd about dealing with instead of burying the past.

Despite Ottewell's courage, the documentary has a few disturbing moments. Viewing the house in Jackson where she grew up, she fails to address the boarded-up house behind her. Saying that she loved and respected blacks growing up, she also admits to her then-contempt of black civil-rights workers for upsetting the unjust "peace." She learns of footage shot by local TV during the Civil Rights Era that was never aired, yet doesn't delve into the complicity of mainstream media in keeping the populace of the state ignorant. She shows politicians at a '60s Neshoba County Fair, yet makes no attempt to connect the rhetoric of the past—"dictatorial … left-wing social planners"—with the rhetoric of 2010.

"Mississippi ReMixed" is best seen as a personal journey toward banishing one woman's ignorance. It isn't meant to be a comprehensive historical perspective, and it's not.

Ottewell tries a little too hard to find instances of how much Mississippi has changed. She goes to McComb to attend a graduation of 10 students expelled in the '60s for supporting a student who joined the civil rights struggle. She has to follow the white and black middle-class flight from Jackson to Madison Central High School in order to show a successfully integrated school where black and white children can be best friends—an unsatisfying end to an unfinished journey.

Finally, through juxtaposing a Martin Luther King speech with glowing positive images of success, Ottewell fails to point to the rest of the path, or even to acknowledge that Mississippi—and possibly Ottewell herself—still has a long way to go.

"Mississippi ReMixed" airs Thursday, Feb. 11 at 8 p.m. on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

Previous Comments

ID
155894
Comment

Well now. If you have been taught to resist all change, that any change from the pass is an effort to harm you, that you're the superior race, that the world and earth and the fullness of it belongs to white folks, and moreover that everyone else is here for your benefit and pleasure, then I understand why she was like she was and possibly still is. Frankly, I don't understand why anyone with any sense and has sojurned beyond their house would believe such things, but I know it occurred. If she has changed and learned better then I applaud her, but I have a general dislike for people who bought into such nonsense without questioning such teachings and changing accordingly and rather quickly upon being expanded and enlightened.

Author
Walt
Date
2010-02-10T17:54:32-06:00
ID
155895
Comment

Walt, I encourage you and others to watch the documentary Thursday and then come here and talk about it. We're also asking Myra if she will allow us to screen it for one of our Race, Religion and Society art+talks. We haven't done one in a while and want to get them going again. This film would be a great one to get a dialogue going about. So, y'all, please share your thoughts after the film.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2010-02-10T18:09:50-06:00
ID
155899
Comment

as a white dude i hesitate to say..."pretty harsh Walt" i mean, the fact of the matter is that i am pretty unaware of exactly what it means to be on the other side of the race issue (or the gender issue). But, can't we at least acknowledge the good of this lady for trying? Do you really mean that you "have a general dislike for people who bought into such nonsense without questioning such teachings and changing accordingly and rather quickly upon being expanded and enlightened. " Don't you think we all buy into some degree of nonsense as we grow up only to turn around and try to chip away at our ignorance as we mature?

Author
daniel johnson
Date
2010-02-10T23:25:58-06:00
ID
155901
Comment

WELL WELL WELL...I simply CAN NOT Wait for this. Ms. Ottewell should have interviewed me!!! :-) Before even seeing this, I must say that I for one applaud her efforts to face what she once knew and welcome reality and fairness. Simply put, it's just not easy to know better when you have no reason to think that what you know is wrong. As difficult as it is to read about this from the "white side", this type of ignorance (and I just mean the fact of not recognizing) happens to blacks and whites. I am living proof of that. And I just started my journey to recovery. So, this takes years off your life where one may feel pain and anger and dislike or on the other hand, hate and power and strenth. Only the graciousness of the God we serve can bring us out of this way of thinking and allow us to still have pride and dignity in our own and who we are. Bravo to her! Now, I'll be doing a documentary on Mississippi the Remixed Remix - The Black Story!

Author
Queen601
Date
2010-02-11T09:01:49-06:00
ID
155904
Comment

Oh, and I reserve the right to a more detailed opinion once I've actually seen the documentary. This one is simply based on the courage it took for her to tackle herself in the first place.

Author
Queen601
Date
2010-02-11T09:27:08-06:00
ID
155906
Comment

Ronni Mott, great article! Can you give the place and make-up of the class Ottwell spoke to four years ago and after they watched MS Burning? Who exactly were her initial commentators?

Author
justjess
Date
2010-02-11T09:54:00-06:00
ID
155920
Comment

It was a class in Vancouver where Myra now lives. Not sure the make-up, but I presume had at least some diversity in it.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2010-02-11T12:16:13-06:00
ID
155921
Comment

Queen, you should do that project. You have so much to say.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2010-02-11T12:17:10-06:00
ID
155929
Comment

I really want to do something like this, unfortunately I may have to do it between baby feedings so it may take a little while to accomplish. :-)

Author
Queen601
Date
2010-02-11T13:11:19-06:00
ID
155939
Comment

Jackson 2000 Study Circles are a place that diverse people gather and dialogue about racial and cultural diversity issues with focus on action as a result. It's first meeting of a 2010 Study Circle began today at Regions Plaza downtown from 11-1 and will meet each Thursday for several weeks continuing the circle. Joanne Micken is facilitating this group. Powerful first session. I encourage each of you to consider participating in a circle as they become available in the future.

Author
J.T.
Date
2010-02-11T14:48:13-06:00
ID
155944
Comment

I will reserve my comments for after I watch the movie but I think the screening is a great idea. J.T. what are these study circles?

Author
multiculturegirl
Date
2010-02-11T15:53:26-06:00
ID
155954
Comment

Daniel unless a person is open and receptive to the same abuse happening to them personally then they have a strong sense or knowledge that the conduct or action is wrong. This crap about it being the way things are done doesn't resonates with me. I know it's just an excuse to avoid responsibility. I don't consider that comment harsh either. I'm not against the chickens coming home to roost. They come back for a very good reason. I want mercy and love so I give it as well. Nonetheless I was honest in my feelings with that comment. It's probably not true in every case, but it's generally how I feel. I too will watch the film before commenting further concerning it.

Author
Walt
Date
2010-02-11T17:55:49-06:00
ID
155956
Comment

how old are you walt?

Author
daniel johnson
Date
2010-02-11T18:20:37-06:00
ID
155998
Comment

@multiculturegirl: Jackson 2000 conducts the study circles in the Jackson area. This Study Circle I am in "made" and began with approximately 15 participants this week. I think that is the max that can participate in order to assure all can easily be heard. It will meet 2 hrs each week for 5 weeks. The facilitator is following the Everyday Democracy guide to facilitate our discussion of racism--which is not just "black-white" but needs to include all racial and ethnic backgrounds in the conversation. It is, of course, risky business to expose who one is and one's language and beliefs and perceptions and have this talk. The goal is for everyone to feel welcome, every person to be heard, build wisdom and insight, have productive dialogue that leads to meaningful action and change. (I am stealing some of this from the study guide.) As our first session ended, it was interesting to see the immediate positive personal impact of only the first session. You can go to www.everyday-democracy.org for more information on them. You can contact either of our co-Presidents of the Jackson 2000 organization for information on the next available study circle that you might attend: Lee Unger and/or Todd Stauffer. Todd publishes the Jackson Free Press and his email address is [email protected] Lee can be reached at [email protected]

Author
J.T.
Date
2010-02-12T15:48:13-06:00
ID
156064
Comment

I saw the program and thought it to be pretty good. I don't believe the producer or her friend were as oblivious to their surroundings as they claim they were unless I'm to believe that unfamiliarity is tantamount to disinterest or carelessness. I was also stunned that Kamikaze and the other gentlemen (Turner I think his name is) believe apathy is the biggest problem now in the black community that holds us back. They might be right but I wasn't on that wavelength. I guess I see and know too many black people from messed up and dysfuntional family who have little or no chance at the American dream because they don't know anyone who has achieved it or sought it, and they don't have a clue how to achieve it themselves, and if they did have a clue they wouldn't have any family or other support to guide or help them. Hardly any of my clients come from a two parents household with working and functional parents. Right now I can only think of one exception. It would help me if Kamikaze and/ or the other young man told us here exactly what they mean by the comments and what they based them on. Clearly my outreach and community involvement need expanding if they are correct. If they're saying that too many of our schoolage children are without passion and emotion for learning, achieving and succeeding against the odds or period, I can't readily disagree with that. I don't know that the passion and emotion tip apply greatly to the adults working hard every day to ink out a living yet barely making it. Daniel, I'm old (above 50). Any time my age is asked unnecessarily I think of what the girl told the two boys. She said she was old enough which told the first boy to pass on her. The second boy wasn't as smart and engaged her. Of course, she will be old enough when the second boys gets out of prison. I'm reading a book now called Race and Cotton, et al, and am learning just how entrenched racism was toward black folks everywhere including up North, Canada, Britain, the USA as a whole, etc.

Author
Walt
Date
2010-02-16T18:01:48-06:00
ID
156096
Comment

Walt, I was told that Cotton and Race is a "must read." Can't find a copy. Let me know where to get one. I was saddened by the comments from Kaze and Turner about "apathy" as it relates to the PROBLEM. Apathy is only a sympthom and there are other symptomatology to include: homelessness, undiagnosed physical illnesses, diagnosed but untreated and undiagnosed mental illnesses, illiteracy, and the list of symptoms goes on and on. The root causes are the problem: These causes are the things that Ms.Ottewells eyes could not see, her ears could not hear and her heart could not generate a beat for acknowledgement or an understanding as she grew up near/around the problem. Black folks have done so much with nothing. Let us not get this story twisted or think that it is simply a matter of our now being "apathetic" that progress is impeded.

Author
justjess
Date
2010-02-17T12:14:14-06:00
ID
156143
Comment

Jess the book is called Race and Cotton and the Making of America, I think. I'll give you the author's name once I subject it to memory. Where is the proof or justification for saying apathy is the biggest problem in the black community. I looked for support over the internet today, but I admit I didn't go to the GOP, the tea party, Rusk Limpbaugh or the likes to view their websites. So far I haven't found any support for the conclusion. We smart Black folks know that the real meaning behind such comments is that we are a bunch of lazy people who are in the situation we're in because we won't work or get off our behinds and try to pull ourselves up from our bootscraps. Is this what is really meant? I don't want to be mistaken in my quest to learn the truth about us. Otherwise, reducing the complex problems and situations of Black Americans to mostly apathy is downright careless, boldly hateful of us, irresponsible to the extent of amnesia, and reflects oblivion to the subject matter spoken about, in my opinion. I admit I could be wrong so I state my openess to enlightenment. If I'm not wrong then I guess it's true what they say about sticking a microphone in the wrong hands or faces. I would expect Larry Elders or David Duke or the likes to say something this dismissive, limiting and disgusting about us without an explanation or any support. By this standard, I guess the country of Haiti, absent the latest event of the hurricane, and the Continent of Africa is mostly apathetic as well. I won't even mention the many other places we exist, yet by and large, suffer the same or similar plight. I hope I'm not being too mean here because my senses and feelings are deeply hurt by the thoughtlessness of the comment or comments. I'm also angered by the same, but I hope I'm masking it. I figured crap music and its debilitating influence would be mentioned as one of the problems facing Black America. Selling crap music to the impressionable and nondiscerning is like selling dope to an addicted community then telling the Man or Mr. Charlie that the problem with that community is they like dope too much. Just as I have given up on my friend Ironghost, I give up on this other person too. If ignorance is bliss and preferred to the light or truth, then have at it.

Author
Walt
Date
2010-02-17T18:09:05-06:00
ID
156144
Comment

Just saw these comments. (I'm behind.) I was bit surprised by the "apathy" comment, too. I would assume that is a symptom as well, as you and Jess say, Walt. I thought that when I saw the documentary, too, but figured it wasn't my place to challenge it. Now, I do know from my own experience that most of what I said of substance didn't end up in the film. Quite frankly, I have mixed feelings about the documentary. I do like seeing the causal history laid out (and talked about it in great detail to Myra myself); however, I am dismayed that's it's such a big deal to hear an educated white woman be so astounded by it. But that is a riddle of our time, I suppose--that so many people are ignorant of our own history, including that of our families. I also don't like the ending of the film. Ending with Madison Central I found very misleading, and it felt like sugarcoating. I also talked a whole lot about the problems we face today as a state with politicians such as Barbour fighting education equity, etc., which I would have liked to have seen in there to at least balance the shiny, happy upper-middle-class portraits of Madison Central. But the film was so much better than I thought it would be when I met Myra. To her credit, she admits in the film that she was woefully ignorant about her state's history and, I believe, came back here to prove those kids wrong and that Mississippi was healed of its race past. She talked to people (several of whom I'm happy to have recommended) who don't believe that (including Kaze and Carlton), but the film seemed to go to great lengths not to offend anyone who is still living. Which is what it is. And maybe it wouldn't have been on MPB if it hadn't pulled punches.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2010-02-17T18:27:27-06:00

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