By Marc S. Sanders

Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning opens with two water fountains side by side. One is labeled “White” and the other is labeled “Colored.” That tells me enough about what life was like in the state of Mississippi in 1964.

The very next image I see is a burning church. Parker keeps his camera focused on the fire as the blazes get bigger and more out of control. Then I realized I’m only just getting to know what life is like in the state of Mississippi in 1964. It’s only now in the year 2020, that Mississippi is opting to remove the Confederate symbol from its state flag. It really has taken this long?

The script written by Chris Gerolmo centers on three young civil rights activists (one black and two white) who turn up missing. Two FBI agents named Anderson and Ward travel down to Jarrett County to investigate the activists’ disappearance and come to learn they are engrained within a dense populace of the Ku Klux Klan that dangerously spreads as far as the local sheriff’s department.

The events in Mississippi Burning are fictionalized, but Gerolmo’s script is based on actual facts. The feds plainly see they are not welcome in Jarret. Ward (Willem Dafoe) is the young crusader in charge of the investigation. He is adamant about being thorough and he will not be intimidated to sit with the colored section in the town diner to ask some questions. Problem is no one dares answer his questions. Worse, simply because Ward approaches a black man, he’s opened up a world of hurt for this man.

Anderson (Gene Hackman) is a former Sheriff of the south who knows that to get anywhere down here means not being so direct on a personal level. Hackman is one of cinema’s finest actors. He’s adept at handling tricky dialogue like circumventing with flirtation or good ol’ boy humor to arrive at some facts. He shares great moments with Frances McDormand as the meek wife of a brutal Klan deputy (Brad Dourif) that the Feds suspect was the ring leader of what happened to the missing men. This is one of Gene Hackman’s best roles. It’s also one of Frances McDormand’s best roles.

Ward orders hundreds of men from the FBI to join the investigation. That only heats things up in the process. Black men are pulled from their homes in the dead of night to be beaten and lynched. More churches and homes are bombed and burned down.

Mississippi Burning is a very disturbing film, as it should be. Alan Parker is unrelenting in showing the brutality of the deep south who are not simply satisfied with just segregation. An obsession of power and evil is rooted in this film. The violence is terribly frightening. More so, Parker wisely gets close ups on the innocent faces of young children embraced in their mother and father’s arms as they proudly listen to a white Klan businessman (the great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky in a truly unexpected and surprising performance) preach his justification for where he believes the colored belong in order to uphold a purity to his proud state of Mississippi. The film reinforces the idea that hatred is taught. Hatred is an unfair misguidance that brainwashes a young mind and passes from generation to generation.

Watching so many movies, I really thought I’d become desensitized to most images. Then I watch a film like Mississippi Burning and I see Confederate flags draped just about anywhere and I honestly wince. Its so ugly to me; as ugly as a swastika. It’s not just on a license plate or hanging on a flagpole. There’s at least three in the local beauty shop and the diner next door. It’s remained a proud tradition. So proudly the symbol hangs, that it seems to cheer for the culture of dragging a young black man into the woods for a beating. When the Feds find this man, Agent Ward asks “What the hell is wrong with these people?” I’m still asking that question over 50 years from the time setting of this film, over thirty years after this film was made.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning should be a must see for parents to show their children. There’s a terrible madness to this film. It’s incredibly sad that this deep hatred is so alive with a passion. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with these people?


By Marc S. Sanders

After watching One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time in many years, I recognized a political dual taking place on the battleground of an insane asylum. Director Milos Foreman sets the stage for one patient to win over the community from the Head Nurse in charge.

Jack Nicholson is Randall P McMurphy, a criminal who is transferred to the asylum for examination even though there are likely suspicions he’s faking his current condition as a means to escape prison life work detail. Louise Fletcher is his opponent as Nurse Ratched who has maintained an organized control over the floor of 19 men with an assortment of mentally unwell behavior.

McMurphy is a cut up as soon as he joins the gang. At first he appears observant during Ratched’s daily sessions where she asks the men to contribute to the discussion but at the same time she couldn’t be less encouraging. She’s happy to welcome ideas with open arms but don’t disrupt the process. There will also be “Medication Times” and there will be samples of classical and childlike music to subdue the patients as well. McMurphy may request the volume be lowered, but that’s not a simple request that Nurse Ratched will honor.

McMurphy’s experience outside the realm of insanity works as a wake up call for some of the men which consist of introductory performances from great character actors like Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito and Vincent Schiavelli. The stand out is Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit, the stuttering suicidal young man with the baby face who fears his mother’s judgment as Nurse Ratched methodically continues to imply.

McMurphy wins over the crowd eventually. A fascinating scene is when Ratched challenges McMurphy to obtain enough votes among the men in order to watch the World Series. The count of raised hands appears to tie, but then Ratched reminds him that he needs one more vote to win. Before he can get to that point, the session is ended by Ratched. The call for election is lost due to a technicality by the governing control. An election won’t silence the voice of the people as McMurphy quickly encourages the masses to watch a blank television screen imagining his own interpretation of the game. Ratched can only domineer to a certain degree. Here’s the flaw in the Ratched character. At last a breakthrough among these ill men is established as they’ve learned to vote for themselves. They want to watch a baseball game. Ratched won’t stand for progress though.

Questions arise in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Is McMurphy truly faking his mental condition? Is Ratched so drunk on control to disregard doctors’ opinions for his release and keep him institutionalized? If he’s not insane, then why would she want him there? Is it all about Ratched’s obsession with winning?

Ken Kesey wrote the original novel the film is based on. He hated Foreman’s approach particularly with disregarding telling his story from the perspective of the deaf/mute six foot five Native American that McMurphy regards as “Chief” (Will Sampson). Chief seems to be the quiet one who does not take sides until McMurphy demonstrates the ease of obtaining freedom such as when the Chief helps him escape over a barb wire fence and then takes the men on a boating joy ride. I can’t side with Kesey’s insistence that the film be done from the perspective of the silent, yet memorable Chief. Film is a different medium than what’s read on a page. You can’t watch people’s thoughts. What I do find interesting is that Kesey opted for a Native American as McMurphy’s best sidekick. This is a man whose ancestors historically lost their land. McMurphy attempts to rob the rule of the asylum from Nurse Ratched. The political undertones just seem so apparent. The government control, however, is hard pressed to surrender even after McMurphy arranges for his own party of celebration complete with booze and alcohol. Ultimately, and sadly, the fate of McMurphy shows that he eventually becomes a product of his own environment. The Chief however, acknowledges his independence though.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is the second of three films to win the five main Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). It deserved it, and because of the film’s unsettling and messy nature it’s almost surprising that it was so well received. It’s not a glamorous film. It can show the ugliness of men drowning in their own consciousness.

At the same time, the film shows the subtle yet brutal control of those living fulfilling lives at the expense of the constituents they oversee. Sure, let’s have an open minded community of provoking thoughts, but only if it’s confined to the restrictions that remain in place. Step outside those lines and a more permanent technique will be applied so you adapt to what’s mandated…unless you can bodily lift a concrete water fountain and smash it through a cage bar enclosed window to freedom.