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?