Mississippi Burning Violence Essay

Mississippi Burning(1988)
Director: Alan Parker
Entertainment grade: B
History grade: D–

On 21 June 1964, one black and two white civil rights activists disappeared near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The FBI codenamed the case MIBURN – short for Mississippi Burning.


The three activists – in real life, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, though they are not named in the film – are driving, tailed by several cars. When they stop, they are murdered and their bodies hidden by a mob of white men connected to the Ku Klux Klan. Later, the FBI turn up, in the fictionalised forms of spiky white liberal intellectual Agent Ward (Willem Dafoe) and rough-around-the-edges white liberal anti-intellectual Agent Anderson (Gene Hackman). Viewers may erroneously conclude that the FBI in 1964 was the vanguard of liberalism, though there is a brief reference to the rather less progressive views of its director J Edgar Hoover. Anderson and Ward are based approximately on real FBI agents John Proctor and Joseph Sullivan.

Civil rights

Ward escalates the investigation with agents from Washington. "You'll start a war," Anderson warns him. "It was a war long before we got here," Ward snaps back. This, along with a nod to the story of James Meredith, is about as far as the film gets towards contextualisation. On release, it was criticised by civil rights figures including Coretta Scott King for largely ignoring the role of black and white activists. One figure who could have been in the movie (and isn't) was Mrs King's husband, Martin Luther King Jr. He visited Philadelphia a month after the disappearances, and declared: "This is a terrible town. The worst I've seen. There is a complete reign of terror here."


Though Mississippi Burning depicts many appalling (and broadly accurate) incidents of racist violence, its narrative focus is on what race politics meant to white people. Most of the black characters in the film are passive, with two notable exceptions. First, the screenplay puts a few aspirations to freedom in the mouth of an angelic young boy, perhaps hoping that the fact he is a child will render anything that sounds like a demand less threatening to any jittery white people in the audience. Second, it creates a flip side to the innocent black child: the scary black monster. Badass FBI Agent Monk (Badja Djola) kidnaps the town's racist mayor and threatens to chop his privates off with a razor blade if he doesn't give up the guilty men. Monk is pretty implausible, though there were such things as black FBI agents in 1964: the first was appointed in 1919. Real-life mafioso and FBI informant Gregory Scarpa (who was of white Italian heritage) claimed to have fulfilled a role similar to Monk's, though historians of the case generally take that with a substantial pinch of salt. Clearly, Mississippi Burning has good intentions when it comes to portraying the history of race politics. Even so, with Monk and the boy as its only substantial black characters, it can't help echoing Rudyard Kipling's description of conquered peoples as "half-devil and half-child" – hinting that, deep down, it isn't immune from some rum old ideas itself.


In the film, Mrs Pell (Frances McDormand), wife of sheriff's deputy and lynch mob leader Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif), reveals a police conspiracy. This leads Anderson and Ward to another of the guilty men, who they soon intimidate into a confession. All of these characters are fictional. In place of Mrs Pell, there was a "Mr X", who has subsequently been named by journalists as highway patrolman Maynard King. Rather than resorting to the vigilante tactics used by Anderson in the film, the FBI allegedly paid cash for information to crack the case. Seven men (out of 18 accused) were convicted on relatively minor conspiracy charges. The only man convicted of the manslaughter of the three activists was Edgar Ray Killen, who was finally prosecuted in 2005.


Mississippi Burning is written, acted and filmed with flair, but its history and politics are as murky as a Mississippi swamp.

LEAD: It was a hot Sunday afternoon in June of 1964 when three young civil-rights workers - Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney - were arrested on a trumped-up speeding charge outside Philadelphia, Miss. They were held for eight hours, then released in the deepening darkness of rural Mississippi.

It was a hot Sunday afternoon in June of 1964 when three young civil-rights workers - Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney - were arrested on a trumped-up speeding charge outside Philadelphia, Miss. They were held for eight hours, then released in the deepening darkness of rural Mississippi. By prearrangement, they were again stopped on a lonely road by the same Neshoba County deputy sheriff who had arrested them earlier, this time accompanied by a party of Ku Klux Klansmen. They were murdered in cold blood, transported to an earthen dam several miles away and buried with a bulldozer.

More than 150 F.B.I. agents ultimately descended on Neshoba County to investigate the disappearance of the civil-rights workers, two of them, Goodman and Schwerner, whites from New York, and the third, Chaney, a black who lived in Neshoba County.

It was 44 days before the investigators penetrated the racist veil of silence that enveloped the case and found the bodies. Goodman, horribly, had a ball of the Mississippi clay in which he was buried squeezed tightly in his hand, indicating that he had not been dead when the bulldozer sealed him into the makeshift grave.

Another three years passed before some of those responsible, Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and six others, including Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, were convicted of civil-rights violations and given prison terms of up to 10 years. None served more than five. There is no Federal murder statute covering such crimes, and no state charges against the men were ever brought in Mississippi.

Those are the facts - the ''true facts'' as some put it in these days of relative reality - on which the British director Alan Parker's film ''Mississippi Burning'' is based. It stars Gene Hackman as the Mississippi-sheriff-turned-F.B.I.-agent, whose own violent tactics ultimately break the case when orthodox methods fail, and Willem Dafoe as the young, by-the-book Justice Department official who finally but grudgingly acquiesces to Hackman's tactics. Locally, the film opens Friday at the Loews Tower East and at Loews 84th Street Six.

The facts of the case are shocking to the sensibilities as well as the emotions, and their depiction by Mr. Parker, known for ''Angel Heart'' and ''Midnight Express,'' leaves little to the imagination. But he does not shrink from inventing dramatic embellishments to capture - and shake - a wider audience.

''I'm trying to reach an entire generation who knows nothing of that historical event,'' Mr. Parker said in a telephone interview, ''to cause them to react to it viscerally, emotionally, because of the racism that's around them now. And that's enough of a reason, a justification, for the fictionalizing.''

The film's opening credits are overlaid on the roaring blaze of a burning church, the scene moving immediately to the lonely back road where the murder of the three young men is re-created with graphic realism. The names of the victims are never mentioned, and other names and details are changed, but the killing itself is eerily close to the reality that is starkly revealed in court records and F.B.I. documents - although the actual victims were led away before being killed.

To those familiar with that place and time, the brutal intimidation of the black people of Neshoba County, also a historic reality although compressed in time, is evocative. When Mr. Dafoe, as a dedicated but inept investigator, makes a public point of sitting in the black section of a restaurant and talking to a young black man, the black is later brutally beaten by Klansmen. Whether the actual event happened is moot; such beatings occurred. Churches and homes are torched in the film, and that, too, is very much the way much of it happened. From June of 1964 to January of '65, just six months, K.K.K. nightriders burned 31 black churches across Mississippi, according to F.B.I. records. So, Mr. Parker does not greatly exaggerate in a film that literally crackles with racial hate.

Onto the basic framework of fact, the screenwriter Chris Gerolmo and Mr. Parker graft considerable artistic fabrication, chiefly concerning the F.B.I.'s investigation of the case, and say it is essentially a ''work of fiction.''

Yet, much of the power of ''Mississippi Burning'' derives from the audience's knowledge that the essential horror it is witnessing onscreen really happened. Even the title of the movie is the actual F.B.I. code name for the investigation. Many details are drawn from life.

''You didn't leave me nothin' but a nigger,'' says James Chaney's killer in the film. ''But at least I killed me a nigger.'' That piece of dialogue comes directly from F.B.I. files, the confession of one of the participants.

There are any number of reasons for turning fact into fiction for the purposes of making a movie, not the least of them the legal difficulties involved in portraying numerous lives, many unsympathetically. But in this case, fiction enables Mr. Parker to have his factual cake, so to speak, while spooning it out richly slathered with fictional icing. Indeed, a legion of dark-suited F.B.I. men are shown nervously wading waist-deep into a fetid Mississippi swamp in search of the missing men's car, and Mr. Parker, who used various locations in Mississippi and Alabama, casts local people for some atmospherics, like on-the-street TV interviews.

For those who know such places, Mr. Parker, who is English, evokes the texture, the gritty, fly-specked Southernness, the brooding sense of small-town menace, the racial hatred, with considerable accuracy. Even much of the violence, the beatings, burnings and lynchings, are perhaps defensible because they are central to the reality. But there also seems to be violence for the sake of it, and Mr. Hackman's portrayal of an F.B.I. man, even in the purest of fictions, beggars Clint Eastwood.

Mr. Parker and Mr. Gerolmo defend the fiction on the ground that there were numerous suggestions - none ever proven - of F.B.I. excesses, but more importantly on the ground that it makes the story all the more emotionally affecting.

But the reality itself is powerful. Those who never ventured into the rural South in the 1960's might find much of it hard to believe - that backcountry lawmen belonged to the Klan, covered up killings and beatings, and were proud to tell you that N.A.A.C.P. stood for ''niggers, apes, alligators, coons and possums,'' as the fictional but all-too-real sheriff tells reporters in ''Mississippi Burning.''

Those of us who did cover the rural Deep South in those days heard that sort of thing, and worse, virtually every day; scarcely a week went by without a burning cross flickering somewhere against the soft velvet backdrop of the Southern sky.

It was a time when more than one Mississippi judge was said to wear a black robe by day and a white one by night, and while it might be an exaggeration to suggest that most white Mississippians supported the Klan, it is fair to say that few of them - with notable and courageous exceptions - had the temerity to speak against it.

For 44 days, F.B.I. agents searched for the bodies of those three missing men before finding them. But, gruesomely, they did find several others they weren't seeking, one a 14-year-old boy, never identified, wearing a CORE T-shirt and those of two black men, eventually found to have been the victims of Klan murder. (Those interested in similar details of the Schwerner-Goodman-Chaney murders should read a meticulously researched nonfiction book by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, ''We Are Not Afraid,'' published by Macmillan and based on F.B.I. records and exhaustive interviews.) That was the way it was in Mississippi in those days, and painful as it is to relive it, ''Mississippi Burning'' serves to remind us with extraordinary force just how bad it was.

But Mr. Parker and Mr. Gerolmo heighten the reality. The real-life truth of the F.B.I.'s long investigation in Neshoba County was that it was neither very efficient, nor, in the end, particularly dramatic.

In the film, the key revelation in the case comes when Mr. Hackman, at once courtly and cynical, uses seduction as a means of obtaining information. The reality is less romantic. The actual ''seduction'' was a $30,000 F.B.I. payoff to a Klan informant.

Mr. Gerolmo said in a telephone interview that ''the fact that no one knew who Mr. X, the informant, was, left that as a dramatic possibility for me, in my Hollywood movie version of the story. That's why Mr. X became the wife of one of the conspirators. That's it - we're making up a story about the facts.''

The re-enactment of the unearthing of the bodies - filmed, with some discretion, from a distance in the humming heat of a Mississippi August - is wrenching, sickening. Yet that, too, is how it happened.

But it is more or less at this point in the film, which had so far been fairly faithful to the record, that Mr. Parker and his scriptwriter go for broke.

To find out who put the bodies in the dam, Mr. Hackman brings in a black bureau ''specialist'' (as an incidental fact, the F.B.I. had no black agents in those days) who, posing as a vengeful black Mississippian, kidnaps and threatens to castrate the bound-and-gagged Mayor if he doesn't reveal the names of the conspirators. To make his point, the kidnapper drops the terrified man's trousers and brandishes a razor blade. The black man describes the horrifying castration of a black youngster by Klansmen and says he intends to do the same to the Mayor unless he talks. He talks.

The razor-wielding ''agent'' is, however, a kind of twice-incarnated fiction. Mr. Gerolmo said he originally wrote the character as a Mafia hit man who forces a confession from one of the conspirators by putting a pistol in his mouth. That, he said, was based on ''a rumor'' circulated in Mississippi at that time, never corroborated.

''In the original screenplay, I wrote the story as I heard it, that there was a Mafioso who owed the F.B.I. a favor who was persuaded to come up and hold a gun in a conspirator's mouth until he told them what they needed to know. Then Alan [ Parker ] was inspired to change that in detail, but basically the spirit was the same.''

Mr. Parker said in interviews that he transformed the Mafia hit man to a black F.B.I. agent as ''almost a metaphor for what was happening in real life, the assertion of black anger, and black rights reasserting themselves.''

By the same token, he said the agent's description of the castration of a young black man was taken from a factual description of a real castration of a black man by a Klansman.

Mr. Parker said, moreover, that preview audiences found the scene the most powerful in the film.

In reality, according to Mr. Cagin, Mr. Dray and other researchers, the F.B.I. relentlessly dogged two shaky participants in the killings -one of whom made indiscreet comments to a friend, who passed them on to the F.B.I., who in turn threatened them with long jail sentences, paid them for information and ultimately arranged plea bargains for lesser sentences in exchange for their cooperation. It took nearly three years.

In the film, all this becomes clever but brutal F.B.I. dirty tricks, including a staged lynching of a Klan conspirator in which he is ''rescued'' at the last minute by other agents.

''When it came to me, the already fictionalized treatment of that script depended upon the F.B.I. not necessarily behaving in such a noble way,'' Mr. Parker said, adding, ''They did resort to rather underhanded methods.'' Castration threats? Staged lynchings? ''In the end,'' said Mr. Parker, ''I will stand by it, because in the end I think I would behave the same way.''

Mr. Parker handles the question cinematically with an exchange in which by-the-book Dafoe accuses get-results Hackman of dragging him into the gutter with the crude tactics. Hackman's response is that that is precisely where the Klan came from.

''It is a fiction,'' said Mr. Parker. ''It's a movie. There have been a lot of documentaries on the subject. They run on PBS and nobody watches them. I have to reach a big audience, so hopefully the film is accessible to reach millions of people in 50 different countries.

''It's fiction in the same way that 'Platoon' and 'Apocalypse Now' are fictions of the Vietnam War. But the important thing is the heart of the truth, the spirit,'' he said. ''I keep coming back to truth, but I defend the right to change it in order to reach an audience who knows nothing about the realities and certainly don't watch PBS documentaries.

''The proof in the end will be how it reaches an audience.'' SHORT MEMORIES

Although Neshoba County, Miss., was the actual setting for the grisly events of ''Mississippi Burning'' and the locus of one of the turning points of the civil-rights struggle of the 1960's, it is even today not a place where politicians like to remind voters of just how bad things were.

When Ronald Reagan took his 1980 campaign for the Presidency to the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., not many miles distant from the lonely dirt road where those civil-rights workers were killed, he made no mention of the racial murder and its attempted cover-up. Instead, he talked about ''state's rights,'' which many Southern blacks regard as shorthand for the purported right of a state like Mississippi to ignore desegregation laws.

In 1983, when the space hero John Glenn appeared at the fair, he pointedly omitted his usual detailed criticism of President Reagan for failing to enforce the civil-rights laws, and on television later hailed ''the old values, the old traditions that are epitomized by the fair.''

Michael Dukakis made a campaign appearance at the fair, a major political event, on Aug. 4, 1988, 24 years to the day after the bodies of the three young civil-rights workers were dug from the dirt dam where they had been buried. Mr. Dukakis did not even mention their names, telling his mostly white audience only that the anniversary was ''a special day.''


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