Movie Reviews

Movie Review – In Honor of Black History Month: Mississippi Burning

Written by Chris Gerolmo
Directed by Alan Parker

Gene Hackman and Willem DaFoe are FBI agents Anderson and Ward, sent to Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers. Immediately upon arrival in Jessup County, they are greeted with hostility by the local sheriff. The story is based on actual events in Philadelphia, Mississippi although parts have been fictionalized to tell the story. In some cases, various stories or incidents have been combined to make a point, while others were added to the story to give a snapshot of what was happening at the time in various places during the general time period this incident took place.

At first the two are polarized. Having originally come from Mississippi, Agent Anderson believes the local law enforcement when the sheriff states that the three in question were arrested for speeding, then released and followed to the county line. Agent Ward is less inclined to believe the sheriff. He takes the word of the local civil rights office that these workers were trained to call in every hour and when they didn’t someone from that office called the sheriff who stated they didn’t know anything about the location of the three workers. Who is lying?

Of course the viewing audience knows, if not going in through the course of history, then from the beginning of the film which shows what has happened to the three workers but which the protagonists must first figure out. Locals swear up and down the whole thing is a hoax perpetrated for publicity by the civil rights activists and NAACP.

It’s an interesting play between the two men who are almost at odds while at the same time being on the same side. They have very different tactics and an almost good cop/bad cop scenario. Hackmann’s Anderson tries to be the affable good ol’ southern boy. DaFore’s Ward comes off as the embodiment of everything those men in the south hate about the “Yankees” who are coming down there telling them how to live.

Anderson takes a shine to the wife of one of the Sheriff’s deputies. Although they don’t become intimate, there is a tension between the two. Mrs. Pell is portrayed by Frances McDormand and she was deservingly nominated for her role in this film. She is the key to unraveling the details of the case – a key bit of fiction in the story.

However the backdrop of the segregation and racism of the time period in the south is true to form and haunting at times. During the commentary in the bonus material, Director Alan Parker makes the point that for the most part those who committed the murder and who are part of the Klan are cowards. However, when trying to answer the questions of where the hatred comes form, he shows a scene of a Klan rally where the local leader (unhooded) is extolling the virtues of being white in segregated Mississippi. The reactions of the people from nods of agreement to tears shows the depth of their hatred. At the same time, they have brought their children along to make sure the message is passed to the next generation. These children are drinking in the message with the same fervor as their parents.

The question is really where someone like Mrs. Pell fits in. She’s come out of the same culture, yet she somehow doesn’t have that hatred. It can’t all be environment or culture, so how come it takes hold in some people and not others? There are no easy answers, and to his credit Parker doesn’t try to simplify the problem and find an unsatisfying explanation.

The other thing I don’t see here is how an agent like Ward could have existed in the climate of the FBI at the time. He’s a good character to be juxtaposed opposite Agent Anderson, but he’s not realistic to the times, no matter who he saved. Maybe Anderson couldn’t have gotten to Mrs. Pell if Ward hadn’t been so brash with his tactics. Everyone had their eyes pretty much on what he was doing and wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on with Anderson. He was talking quietly to people, something those who were the instigators of the violence might have paid more attention to had they not had the diversion of what Agent Ward was doing.

Although based on actual events, the characters here have been fictionalized, particularly the FBI agents. Hackmann is good in the role, especially when he’s educating DaFoe about where all the hate comes from. Quite often he’s given long monologues throughout the film and he delivers them wonderfully without it becoming boring or tedious to listen to. It’s not that he agrees with what he sees happening, but he does know how these people think.

Watching this with my daughter was interesting. In some ways while I thought it would be eye-opening, she tried to pass a lot of it off to Hollywood telling a story. The violence is so horrific that it’s hard to believe human beings can do that to one another and to her it had to be exaggerated. We looked up incidents on the web of churches being burned down and people being murdered, as well as the original incident upon which Mississippi Burning is based and I think it resonated with her a bit. In any case, it’s given her food for thought and something to keep in mind in the future.

Much like the film makes the case that no one cared about who was dying in the fight for civil rights until it is the two white northern students who go missing and eventually turn up murdered, I was disturbed that neither Agent Anderson nor Agent Ward really seemed affected or to feel any real guilt about what was going on around them in the town until it is Mrs. Pell who is beaten by her husband and in the hospital. I realize it’s a story but I thought it was bad form in a movie that is trying to instill the value of a life no matter what the color of one’s skin to mildly contradict that very message.

The same white people who called anyone against segregation and decried any attempt to register black people to vote as somehow violating their civil liberties are the parents of the people now trying to pass “marriage protection” amendments and allow discrimination based on sexual preference. They are the same people who think it’s a good thing, moral thing to protest outside a gay person’s funeral and use the bible to prop up their argument the same way it was used to prop up the arguments for slavery, segregation, and lynching. Why haven’t we as human beings learned not to hate?

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