A Conversation About Mississippi Burning

In Side By Side, we look at a movie from two competing perspectives. This month, Meredith and Reed discuss Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning

 

By Reed Brewer and Meredith Morrison

 

Reed: It’s hard to imagine the critical response Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning would receive if it were released today. The film’s narrative—which is loosely based on actual events—wouldn’t feel that out-of-place among the current independent historical dramas. The film, set in Mississippi circa 1964, centers around the murders of three civil rights workers in a fictional Jessup County.

However, its depiction of race relations and overall narrative structure seem at times both forced and dated. The film spends more time examining the town through the eyes of FBI agents Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe), than it does the persecuted black population. It also only briefly alludes to concerns of voting rights or religious diversity, only to quickly dismiss of them.

Meredith, what kind of think-pieces do you think we would read if this were a new release?

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FBI agents review the case file. (Orion Pictures_

Meredith: After watching more recent films on systemic racism, such as Ava Duvernay’s 13th or Solly Granatstein’s America Divided, I think critics now are more apt to recognize this as a dominant narrative with implicit bias.

This reoccurring interpretation of historic events, often involves a white champion or spokesperson for a marginalized group. America’s dearly beloved Atticus Finch played this role in To Kill A Mockingbird, a progressive novel and film for its time. In this case, Mississippi Burning, depicts white FBI agents as pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement and focuses almost solely on their investigation, perceptions, and social justice efforts. While the film portrays the Civil Rights fight, it certainly lacks the presence of equity.  

R: The comparison with To Kill A Mockingbird wasn’t one that I thought of while watching Mississippi Burning, but I think that is right on target. I had originally thought of The Help, but that comparison does this film quite a disservice, because Parker’s film is much more interested in politics and violence.

To Kill A Mockingbird—and to be transparent, it has been a while since I have seen it—functions very similarly to Mississippi Burning. Violence and injustice against a black man forces a noble, but partially reluctant, white man to combat racism with mastery of the legal procedure. But in both narratives, the white protagonists has difficulty understanding racial bias. It’s almost as if they are too above it to understand.

Agent Anderson surveys the Klan’s terrorism. (Orion Pictures)

At one moment early on in Mississippi Burning, Ward asks Anderson, “Where does it come from, all this hatred?” And Anderson, a native southerner himself, responds with an anecdote about his destitute father. He says that his father was “too full of hate to know being poor was what was killing him.” While their observations might be accurate, they feel cold and out-of-touch. Or maybe more significant, they are not solutions.

M: My comparison to To Kill A Mockingbird developed several hours after watching the movie. While watching the film, I also questioned the reasons for hatred, but those immediate thoughts flowed as superficial reactions to the horrific violence and graphic images, not to the narrative structure.

Historic or fictional interpretations of the Civil Rights era, especially with older releases, often follow a pattern of showing hate crimes and ignoring or exasperating the underlying issue of racial bias. To Kill A Mockingbird, focused on the Finch family and blocked potential black narratives with racism. In Mississippi Burning, we watch the Ku Klux Klan burn a black residence and force a father to guard the home while his family escapes. The father’s anger and rifle did not stop the KKK from tying a noose around his neck. This man fought for his family and faced unimaginable adversaries, but we only see a minute of his story (without commentary) before the FBI arrives.  

One of the many funerals held in Jessup County. (Orion Pictures)

R: That’s exactly right. That scene perfectly illuminates what is so incredibly lacking in the film. However, I think Parker might argue that his film actually does give voice to the marginalized black characters.

In the opening frame of the film, we see two water fountains, one for whites, one for blacks. While this is an infamous and ubiquitous image of the segregation era, the symmetry appears to foreshadow the film’s narrative. I think we could read from this frame that the film is showing us the two worlds that it’s trying to present.

The film also uses religion to try and initiate a portrayal of the black community in Jessup County. The shots of black families gathered at church and singing hymns are designed both to establish them as innocent victims and to communicate that religion is their strongest refuge from violence.

But, Parker does little more to afford them agency, as you rightly point out, especially when we consider how much screen time Deputy Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif) gets. And he is a Klan member and the murder of the three activists.  

M: The film gives voice to the black community, but it’s partial and filtered. Church gatherings, solemn marches, and graveside congregations display the need for faith and community, and those elements still play a vital role for society. However, the film excludes other aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, as we only see the black community as noble sufferers, not even main characters.

The shot of two water fountains, one for whites, one for blacks, does foreshadow the narrative, but one of a black-and-white interpretation of racial complexities in the Civil Rights era.

So many homes are torched by the Klan in the film. (Orion Pictures)

R: The film does seem to suggest that racial tensions are cut-and-dry. After all, the protagonists basically sum it up to white ignorance. But, I keep wanting to give Parker and the film more credit than that. And while that might be unwarranted, I still have that urge.

One scene that I keep coming back to is when Anderson runs into Pell and Sheriff Ray Stuckey (Gailard Sartain) at the barber shop. After labeling Anderson’s agency the “Federal Bureau of Integration,” they say he has no business telling them how to live their lives. Anderson calmly replies that he isn’t the force dictating change, but rather the rest of America demands it. The sheriff stern instructs him that “the rest of America don’t mean jack-shit; you are in Mississippi now.”

For my money, this line might be the most critical in the film, because in it we can glean a truer understanding of their racism.

Even church aren’t immune. (Orion Pictures)

Anderson and Ward express that the violent racism in Jessup County is largely a result of the white ignorance and refusal to to adopt progressive policies (which we briefly touch on voting rights). But in the sheriff’s remark there’s another answer: they don’t think they should have to change. They view the Civil Rights Movement as a designed scheme to rob them of their own liberties. We see this affirmed later when the deputy refers to the Klan as a “social club” and its meetings as “political events.”

Now, I get that’s subtle—and far from satisfactory given that there still are not any fully developed black characters. But, maybe that’s enough to separate this film from typical “white savior” narratives.

M: I don’t want to discredit Parker’s subtle efforts to emphasize the depth of racism in Southern communities. However, I wonder why he chose such a critical and sensitive period in American history to deliver a gritty drama about two argumentative policemen. Not that I claim to understand Parker’s motives, but some may think the film exploits black history for the sake of entertainment. Then, others may argue that a loose and dramatic interpretation of history is just art.

Whether we see the film as a well-executed drama or misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s safe to say that the film provokes deep thoughts and discussions on race–something other “white savior” films often fail to do.

Header Illustration by Meredith Morrison
Meredith Morrison
Meredith hails from small town MissourUH ("real America") and currently resides in Little Rock, Arkansas. She spends her days juggling various tasks at a philanthropic organization, sketching pandas (among other things), and cooking. @meredithmm3