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.
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.
Made 27 years ago, a quarter of a century after the sensational murders of three civil rights workers in a small deep south township by Ku Klux Klan members that it recreates, Mississippi Burning is wearing well. Arguably the finest of Alan Parker’s 17 feature films, it’s a vivid, passionate political thriller combining melodrama and semi-documentary realism to powerful effect. Had it not been for a campaign directed against its British director from both blacks and whites for the alleged imbalance in its treatment of racial issues, most especially for giving insufficient emphasis to the African Americans’ role in the civil rights movement, this masterly film would have won more than the single award for cinematography it received after being nominated for seven major Oscars.
Mississippi Burning opens with two brilliantly contrasted sequences. The first is the blood-chilling pursuit at night on a straight, steeply undulating country road where moment by moment the image on screen alternates between the car driven by the northern outsiders and the three cars belonging to the southerners out to kill them. The second sequence follows immediately after the point-blank killing of the civil rights worker driving the first car, and it is deliberately and ironically light in tone. Shot in broad daylight on a flat open road, it shows two FBI agents, one a by-the-book liberal, Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe), the other, Rupert Anderson, a former Mississippi sheriff (Gene Hackman reprising his Popeye Doyle in pragmatic, enlightened mode), exchanging uneasy banter as they drive along the state highway to Jessup County, the name adopted by the film for the real Philadelphia, Mississippi.
The first sequence is fact, the second fiction. Both are shot, like the rest of the picture, on authentic locations in Mississippi and adjoining Alabama. At this point the two federal officers from Washington are unaware that the missing persons case they’ve been sent south to solve will turn into a complex murder investigation, though the homicide charges will be replaced by prosecutions for the denial of civil rights, offences to be heard in federal courts rather than by prejudiced local judges. Through the FBI men’s eyes we come to understand this community, and why orthodox legal procedure will not work in a culture where the arrogant culprits are protected by the southern version of omerta.
Mississippi Burning is a visceral experience, immersing the audience in the vicious anger of the local racists and the heat from the flaming crosses of the Ku Klux Klan: apparently in one scene reconstructing a KKK torching of a black church at night, Parker’s crew got so close to the blazing building action that the camera equipment was seriously damaged. What the film deliberately avoids by sticking to a single rural area of the south is the larger context, first of the civil rights movement in the north, then of the role of the Justice Department under attorney general Robert Kennedy in forcing the hand of the FBI’s director, J Edgar Hoover.
In his lifetime, Hoover was above criticism in Hollywood, but as Parker’s film was made 16 years after Hoover’s death, the agents can refer to his sharing the Klan’s hatred of Jews, communists, blacks and atheist agitators.
The performances are perfect: not just Dafoe and Hackman but Frances McDormand… and indeed every lived-in face in Jessup
The agents on the ground worked by patient investigation, manipulation and bribery, not through the use of violence in the manner of Eliot Ness and his Untouchables in the prohibition era. But Parker does make us reconsider that crucial period in postwar politics between the somnolence of the Eisenhower administration and the Vietnam war, and there is an eloquent final image of a southern cemetery with the stump of a vandalised headstone in the foreground on which only the words “1964 Not Forgotten” remain.
This new Blu-ray print contains a full-length commentary by Parker and interviews with Parker, Willem Dafoe and the screenwriter, Chris Gerolmo, which make it clear how deeply the director became involved with a project that was originally developed by the now defunct Orion company, a studio noted for its liberal views and its hands-off approach after it appointed a director. It’s clear that although Gerolmo was given a single credit, Parker reshaped the screenplay and was largely responsible for the choice of locations, the casting, the film’s tone and its politics. Moreover, it was made by key members of his regular British crew, most significantly his cinematographer, Peter Biziou (who won an Oscar), his editor, Gerry Hambling, and his production designer, Geoffrey Kirkland.
The performances by a large, carefully chosen cast are perfect – not just Dafoe and Hackman, but Frances McDormand as the sad housewife persuaded to betray her guilty husband, Brad Dourif as a craven lawman, R Lee Ermey as the town’s mayor, and indeed every lived-in face in Jessup.
The tension is sustained throughout, and the anger on both sides is incandescent, though there is no attempt made, as there was in so many Hollywood movies, to minimise the pain and indignity inflicted on African Americans, or to excuse the cruelty of a segregated society. It is all a long time ago now, but the period remains alive on the screen in Parker’s film and is sadly still echoed in this second decade of the 21st century. When unarmed African Americans are killed in New York, South Carolina, Florida and St Louis by white people who then go unpunished, we are reminded of the underlying tensions that continue to rumble on in American society.