“Mississippi Burning”, made in 1988, is based on real events that occurred in 1964. It depicts the way racism divides and destroys community.
In 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi after they tried to help the local African American community enrol to vote. Two agents of the FBI (played by Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman) arrive to investigate the disappearance, and eventually the murder of the three men. The escalating racial violence tears the community apart.
The facts are that the three activists were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, and buried on a nearby farm. It was discovered later that one of the three was still alive when buried and had been trying to dig his way out. 150 FBI agents arrived from New Orleans to begin a search. After they found the car belonging to the men, the federal government sent sailors from a nearby naval base to search the swamps for the bodies. While they didn’t find the bodies, the sailors unearthed several other bodies of black men.
The FBI were tipped off regarding the location of the bodies. They arrested eighteen suspects on charges of violation of civil rights, and seven of them were found guilty. None of those found guilty served more than six years. A pastor and KKK member called Edgar Killen went free at the time, but 41 years later was tried and convicted of manslaughter. He died in prison. The actions of the KKK were outraging the nation and helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Act. (I have taken this information from www.thegospelcoalition.org.)
I think the film adheres well enough to the basics of the circumstances, with the expected dramatization of the situation in order to engage the audience interest. Ward (Dafoe) oversees the investigation. He does not have prior experience in a segregated state and doesn’t understand that just asking black people questions is going to put them at risk, even if they won’t talk to him. This contrasts with Anderson (Hackman), a former Sheriff of a small town like the one they are in. He has a better understanding of the local situation and has more of an idea how to go about talking to people. Ward does not approve of Anderson’s attitude and tactics, while Anderson thinks Ward is too stuck on the rules to get results. Their prickly relationship is central to the film
The audience is introduced to Anderson singing a racist song, so we immediately think he’s not a nice man. Very quickly after this we realise that there’s more to him, when he refers to the KKK as pointy-heads. His background as sheriff of a similar town makes him unwilling to believe that the sheriff’s office is involved in the murders. However, this character doesn’t allow himself to be blind. It soon becomes apparent that the sheriff and his men are in it up to their necks, and Anderson accepts this. I found him an interesting character. We learn that while he grew up in that environment and held office in that environment, he does not agree with the racism. I found myself wondering if he’d been racist and something changed his mind.
Ward, unused to the local attitudes, seems out of his depth to begin with. He shows very clearly why he is in charge, however. Anderson complains about the extra people Ward gets in, but ultimately, they need the manpower to get results. Ward, too, is flexible in his attitudes. He comes to understand that Anderson is correct in that they need to go harder with the KKK men.
Brad Dourif as Deputy Pell is one of the main bad guys. As a senior man in the local KKK, he is present during the murders and certainly instrumental in later attacks. He is proud of his actions and convinced of his rightness. When he realises his wife tipped off the FBI about the bodies, he brings men into the house and has them all watch while he beats her up and puts her in the hospital, a profoundly disturbing scene. He comments in a puzzled way about how black babies can be cute, the obvious implication being that they don’t stay that way. He is, in a word, quite horrible. The other conspirators are equally as unpleasant.
Frances McDormand, as Mrs Pell, is a representative character of white people in the community who don’t feel the same way, but don’t speak up for fear of being attacked themselves. She is the one who explains how they are taught hate in the schools and in their homes. It takes a lot of courage in the face of such violence to stand up, and it is understandable that many would try not to see. I felt her character was more a representation of an attitude than a person. This isn’t a bad thing, but actually a good way of explaining the attitudes.
I did wish for more presence from the black characters in this story. We see them, the boy who speaks out, the man who is lynched, the pastor who states how angry he is. But they seem to be minor characters in a story that concerns them. I did wonder if that was deliberate. After all, in this environment they do not have agency to act for themselves, which is of course the problem. Still, I felt dissatisfied by this aspect of the film.
The director Alan Parker makes excellent use of the camera to show contrasts. The first scene we see is two water fountains side by side. One is marked ‘white’ and one ‘coloured’. We see a white man and then a black child come up and drink. The ‘white’ water fountain is much newer and cleaner. Throughout the movie the same contrasts are made over and over. Segregation signs are often seen in the background of scenes, a silent presence throughout. There is a scene in the white neighbourhood, with a street of green grass and nice houses, which shifts immediately to the black neighbourhood of brown dirt and poor hovels. All through the film, this contrast speaks as loudly as any dialogue as to the inequality of the situation.
Fire-bombing of churches and homes, beatings and murders. It makes you want to just weep, and this kind of thing really happened. The very language used so casually by many of the characters is cringe-inducing. The film is a classic case of escalating violence, which is a staple of racially based conflicts in so much of the world. The most pathetic aspect of this situation is that it is the disapproval of the country that is triggering the escalation by the KKK, while the black community they are attacking have not retaliated.
This is a beautifully directed and acted film, of a gripping and tragic story. The attitudes that underly this tragedy, sadly are not in the past. “Mississippi Burning” is still relevant after thirty years because this is still happening, all over the world. This film, and others like it, are important because they teach us the consequences of hate.
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