Film Review: ‘Mississippi Burning’

Southern discomfort

‘Mississippi Burning’

By any standards Mississippi Burning directed by Alan Parker is a very forceful piece of cinema and watching it made me realise that the horror and despair I experienced, when the three young Civil Rights activists were murdered in Mississippi in the 1960s, were still there.

The three were arrested on a trumped up speeding charge when in fact their ‘offence’ was to encourage the blacks to take what was in constitutional theory their right—to register to vote. They were held by the police until the local Ku Klux Klan could organise a lynching party and then they were released for the Klan to murder them and bury their bodies in the earthworks of a dam. The FBI came down to investigate (the suspected crime was not murder, which had to be left to the State police, but violation of federal rights), found the bodies and brought a number of people to court among them the town’s sheriff and his deputy. The sheriff was acquitted, the others went to prison.

Mississippi Burning—Hollywood’s version of that gruesome incident—has been criticised for the way it embroiders and distorts the facts, introducing elements of heroism into a story that was sordidly drab. For example, in the film the case is cracked—the FBI break open the cocoon of silence woven around the murderers by local people—through some subtle ingratiation by Gene Hackman and some not-so-subtle intimidation by his henchmen, which makes for a watchable film but does not fit the reality that it happened through the unheroic process of bribing witnesses. A lot of the film is concerned with the struggle between Hackman, a rough, tough ex-sheriff turned FBI agent, and his boss played by Willem Dafoe who is a serious, sharp-suited college boy. Dafoe tries to insist that the investigation sticks to ‘Bureau procedure’ while Hackman itches to behave more like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. There are no prizes for guessing who comes out on top and whose methods are eventually used. If it didn’t turn out that way it would not have been half as gripping a film and there wouldn’t have been so many opportunities for the audience to relieve its tension in vengeful laughter, which swamped out any doubts about means and ends.

Case Against Racism

Among the film’s bits of fable—like Hackman silencing and humiliating the town’s most rampant racist thug by grabbing and squeezing his balls (at which more of that laughter)—it makes out its case against racism. Dafoe reminds us that racism is not a local problem but a social curse, rooted in widespread ignorance. Hackman remembers his father, a poor white farmer who enviously poisoned the mule of a more successful black neighbour. Revealing himself in this way helps him win the confidence of the deputy sheriff’s wife, so she feels able to burst out with the frustration of trying to be humane when she was surrounded by a bigoted hatred which she had grown up with, and had married.

Compared to the millions wiped out by capitalism every year, compared to what the Nazi and Stalinist dictatorships did, compared to what was being unleashed in Vietnam at the time, three deaths seem of little numerical account. The horror stems from the fact that they were part of a long history of repression which had conditioned the people of the South into accepting that anyone with a black skin was fair game for anything white people chose to do them. It stems from the tension in the communal condonement of the murders and in the savage intimidation of any possible witnesses. It is a response to the ruthlessly destructive passion in defence of a diseased and doomed limb of prejudice.

Right to Vote Not Enough

And the despair is born of what has happened since then. In the 1960s segregation was crumbling under pressure from the economic, commercial and military needs of American capitalism. It still needed massive courage by the Civil Rights workers (the three in Mississippi knew exactly how terrible were the risks they ran) until now the American blacks are pretty well established as a voting force, which has had its effect on the face of politics there. All over the country, including the South, blacks are elected to public office. But it is not enough, just to win the vote; it must be used with an awareness of why society operates as it does and a will to change it. The case of the American Negro offers plenty of evidence in support of that argument.

Mississippi Burning is a powerful indictment of racist bigotry but it leaves us with the question: if there was indeed some kind of triumph of human qualities in Mississippi in those awful days, is it really represented now by the likes of Jesse Jackson?”


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