A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer [director’s cut]

31 Oct

Director, Cinematographer, Editor: Richard Beymer
Producers: Richard Beymer and Council of Federated Organization Film (COFO). Copyright © 1964 Richard Beymer. All rights reserved.

A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer

Washington University Film & Media Archive is excited to make Richard Beymer’s A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer [director’s cut] available in full to the public. As part of a National Film Preservation Foundation Grant (NFPF) awarded this year to the Film & Media Archive, the original version is currently undergoing preservation.  Once the preservation work is complete the original version will be available for scholars and fans.   Thanks to the generosity of the filmmaker, the director’s cut is currently available to view.

Filmed in 1964 during the Mississippi Summer Project, a campaign to register black voters, provide educational opportunities, and build the movement for integration, Beymer’s film is unique as he was one of the few filmmakers working side-by-side with the activists and volunteers who made up the massive movement that was Freedom Summer.  In 1964, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella group of civil rights organizations that included SNCC working in Mississippi, issued a call for volunteers, and nearly 1,000 responded. After receiving training, the volunteers, mostly white, northern college students and recent graduates, joined the existing group of predominantly black activists. But it wasn’t just students who heeded to call to come to Mississippi that summer.

After gaining notice in films such as The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Richard Beymer became a major star after appearing in West Side Story in 1961. He continued to work in Hollywood but was riveted by the news reports coming out of the South and Mississippi during the turbulent years of the early sixties. After being challenged to do something about his convictions by his agent during a cross-country trip to New York, Beymer decided to go to Mississippi during Freedom Summer.

At that time the I.F. Stone Weekly was an independent publication that covered the activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Since SNCC was one of the main organizers of the Mississippi Summer Project Beymer contacted I.F. Stone, the journalist and publisher responsible for the newsletter, and asked on advice on how to get to Mississippi. Stone’s advice, “You get in your car and drive to Mississippi,” while practical did not provide much detail on how to make contacts or find activists. When Beymer arrived in Mississippi, he asked people in town where the closest SNCC office near Jackson, Mississippi was. When he found the office, he explained his presence by saying, “I want to be part of this.” A SNCC volunteer handed him a broom and said, “Fine. There’s a broom, you can start with that.”

After a few days, Beymer attended an out-of-state orientation and it was during this time that the idea of making a film came to him. He had done a lot of still photography and had wanted to make a film before and proposed the idea to the organizers of a piece that could be shown to volunteers so they would have some idea of what they were getting into. They agreed and Beymer returned to Mississippi armed with a 16mm Bolex camera and a supply of black and white 16mm film.

Group photo of students and volunteers with Richard Beymer at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964

Group photo of students and volunteers with Richard Beymer at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964, © Richard Beymer Collection.

During the summer, Beymer worked doing voter registration, canvassed neighborhoods, and in between doing this work filmed the daily lives and activities of the volunteers and the local people and children. He explained that he had his camera with him at all times and,”When I saw something that struck me, I had it there ready to go. I was making a film of my experience, wherever it took me.”

“I had no idea what I was getting into. Until you walk into it, you don’t know all of that.” — Richard Beymer

Speaking of the dangers of doing the work SNCC was engaged, Beymer said, “We were out in the boonies. It was kind of scary and where are you going to go–to the police? Anyone could have been killed at any time.”

Beymer describes the time as both positive and negative. Within the world of the volunteers and the African-American Mississippians, “We ate together, we went to these crummy little bars, we were all together there, it was great.” But he was shocked by the conditions that existed for black Mississippians at that time and that brutal poverty is captured in the film.

In addition to the poverty, the threat of racist violence haunted Freedom Summer from the beginning. On June 21, one week after the first volunteers arrived for training, three activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, disappeared. The FBI conducted a massive search and found their corpses on August 4. All of the work the volunteers engaged in was done with the threat of something similar happening to them hanging over their heads.

Beymer didn’t develop the film until he returned to Los Angeles at the end of the summer, and then spent the next year editing. The footage Beymer captured has a naturalistic, spontaneous quality that evokes cinema vérité techniques at times. The impact of this footage showing the work of Mississippi volunteers and the local people who had not been given an opportunity to share their stories has carried through till the present day. As a result, other documentary filmmakers frequently seek his footage. Most recently, filmmaker Stanley Nelson relied heavily on A Regular Bouquet when completing his film, Freedom Summer, which premiered in June 2014 on PBS and footage from Beymer’s film appeared in Henry Hampton’s seminal documentary series, Eyes on the Prize (1987), episode five, Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964).

Participants at an organizational meeting during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964.  © Richard Beymer Collection.

Participants at an organizational meeting during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. © Richard Beymer Collection.

A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer is part of the Richard Beymer Collection at the Film & Media Archive. In addition to the film elements of A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer, and a collection of black and white photographs that were shot during filming, the collection contains other titles by Beymer including The Innerview, Point of Departure and Perfect Movies. It also includes a taping of part of show 3 of Midnight Snacks by Andy Kaufman on which Richard Beymer appeared.

* Note: Quotes for this article are from a telephone interview with Richard Beymer, from August 18, 2014.


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