Made 27 years ago, a quarter of a century after the sensational murders of three civil rights workers in a small deep south township by Ku Klux Klan members that it recreates, Mississippi Burning is wearing well. Arguably the finest of Alan Parker’s 17 feature films, it’s a vivid, passionate political thriller combining melodrama and semi-documentary realism to powerful effect. Had it not been for a campaign directed against its British director from both blacks and whites for the alleged imbalance in its treatment of racial issues, most especially for giving insufficient emphasis to the African Americans’ role in the civil rights movement, this masterly film would have won more than the single award for cinematography it received after being nominated for seven major Oscars.
Mississippi Burning opens with two brilliantly contrasted sequences. The first is the blood-chilling pursuit at night on a straight, steeply undulating country road where moment by moment the image on screen alternates between the car driven by the northern outsiders and the three cars belonging to the southerners out to kill them. The second sequence follows immediately after the point-blank killing of the civil rights worker driving the first car, and it is deliberately and ironically light in tone. Shot in broad daylight on a flat open road, it shows two FBI agents, one a by-the-book liberal, Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe), the other, Rupert Anderson, a former Mississippi sheriff (Gene Hackman reprising his Popeye Doyle in pragmatic, enlightened mode), exchanging uneasy banter as they drive along the state highway to Jessup County, the name adopted by the film for the real Philadelphia, Mississippi.
The first sequence is fact, the second fiction. Both are shot, like the rest of the picture, on authentic locations in Mississippi and adjoining Alabama. At this point the two federal officers from Washington are unaware that the missing persons case they’ve been sent south to solve will turn into a complex murder investigation, though the homicide charges will be replaced by prosecutions for the denial of civil rights, offences to be heard in federal courts rather than by prejudiced local judges. Through the FBI men’s eyes we come to understand this community, and why orthodox legal procedure will not work in a culture where the arrogant culprits are protected by the southern version of omerta.
Mississippi Burning is a visceral experience, immersing the audience in the vicious anger of the local racists and the heat from the flaming crosses of the Ku Klux Klan: apparently in one scene reconstructing a KKK torching of a black church at night, Parker’s crew got so close to the blazing building action that the camera equipment was seriously damaged. What the film deliberately avoids by sticking to a single rural area of the south is the larger context, first of the civil rights movement in the north, then of the role of the Justice Department under attorney general Robert Kennedy in forcing the hand of the FBI’s director, J Edgar Hoover.
In his lifetime, Hoover was above criticism in Hollywood, but as Parker’s film was made 16 years after Hoover’s death, the agents can refer to his sharing the Klan’s hatred of Jews, communists, blacks and atheist agitators.
The performances are perfect: not just Dafoe and Hackman but Frances McDormand… and indeed every lived-in face in Jessup
The agents on the ground worked by patient investigation, manipulation and bribery, not through the use of violence in the manner of Eliot Ness and his Untouchables in the prohibition era. But Parker does make us reconsider that crucial period in postwar politics between the somnolence of the Eisenhower administration and the Vietnam war, and there is an eloquent final image of a southern cemetery with the stump of a vandalised headstone in the foreground on which only the words “1964 Not Forgotten” remain.
This new Blu-ray print contains a full-length commentary by Parker and interviews with Parker, Willem Dafoe and the screenwriter, Chris Gerolmo, which make it clear how deeply the director became involved with a project that was originally developed by the now defunct Orion company, a studio noted for its liberal views and its hands-off approach after it appointed a director. It’s clear that although Gerolmo was given a single credit, Parker reshaped the screenplay and was largely responsible for the choice of locations, the casting, the film’s tone and its politics. Moreover, it was made by key members of his regular British crew, most significantly his cinematographer, Peter Biziou (who won an Oscar), his editor, Gerry Hambling, and his production designer, Geoffrey Kirkland.
The performances by a large, carefully chosen cast are perfect – not just Dafoe and Hackman, but Frances McDormand as the sad housewife persuaded to betray her guilty husband, Brad Dourif as a craven lawman, R Lee Ermey as the town’s mayor, and indeed every lived-in face in Jessup.
The tension is sustained throughout, and the anger on both sides is incandescent, though there is no attempt made, as there was in so many Hollywood movies, to minimise the pain and indignity inflicted on African Americans, or to excuse the cruelty of a segregated society. It is all a long time ago now, but the period remains alive on the screen in Parker’s film and is sadly still echoed in this second decade of the 21st century. When unarmed African Americans are killed in New York, South Carolina, Florida and St Louis by white people who then go unpunished, we are reminded of the underlying tensions that continue to rumble on in American society.
Essay on Mississippi Burning
Mississippi Burning takes place exactly where the title says, Mississippi. The year is 1964 in a small country town named Jessup. Since it’s the South, blacks are treated like they are a step below the normal man. This entire film is about a missing person case that two FBI agents come to investigate. They get swept up in something much bigger than what they came for.
When three civil rights representatives, two whites and a black boy, come into town and set up a voting both, the white town’s folk burn it down. The three kids are driving away when they find out they are being followed. After a few rear endings they turn down a side road, and the car behind turns on its lights. It was a cop car along with two other trucks. The boys stop and the Deputy, Clinton Pell, and the sheriff Mr. Stucking, come up to them and spoke first. Another man, Frank Baily, comes to the window. He is a very scary and strong looking man who hates blacks. He mouths off a few racial words then pulls a gun and kills all three of them.
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Later, two FBI agents come into town trying to find out what happened to the three missing people. One is a young college boy, Allan Ward, who, like you said in the FILMOGRAPHY packet, is a by the book guy. The other, Mr. Anderson, is a former Southern Sheriff. Right from the start they met with cold glances and turned backs. Allan met with the black members of the city only to get no information and bad news for the black people because they were beaten because of Allan’s talking. The Sheriff gave them a false story about the boys that seamed really fishy and did not make sense. After a little nosing around, they found out that a big KKK was in the town. Those people didn’t like the FBI agents, so they put a burning cross in the yard of their motel. Allan called in more agents to help with the case.
The KKK went on a riot after that, burning down houses and churches. The FBI found the car the kids were driving in a swamp. Allan decided to call in 100 more agents to help search the area. The event caught the attention of the nation and the press came pouring in.
The agents kept getting closer and closer to the truth, and the Klan kept getting madder and madder. After a peaceful protest for black rights, the Klan went on a rampage burning down every black home. The agents bring the Sheriff to a State trial for those incidents. The Sheriff and his Deputy are sentenced to five years in prison, but the Judge suspends it, meaning that it’s not going to happen anytime soon. The trial outrages the Klan who go on a massive killing spree.
The bodies of the three boys are found. Allan finds that he is not doing so well after a punch from Mr. Anderson, and Mr. Anderson takes over. He gets a piece of the story from the Deputy, Mr. Pall’s, wife. Hardball is the next move. They call in a “specialist” who threatens to cut off one of the clan member’s balls. He gets the whole story from him and the Agents set up a few stings to confirm. At the end, all the people who participated in the violent crime are placed behind bars, an action packed ending.
This film was made to show the treatment and unjust action towards the black community. The film was done with third person point of view, seeing and hearing everyone.
One thing that I learned from Mississippi Burning was that everyone from a town would look the other way when this happens. Nobody came forward and said anything without a fight or first saying no. If more towns were like this one, then the entire country at the time was messed up.
Another fact that I learned was that the lynch mobs would readily beat up women and children and burn down every building without a care. The third thing that I learned was even if you were white, you could still become a victim of the KKK. The two white boys where murdered before their black partner was.
Some stereotypes in this film were about FBI agents. When Allan called in the many agents, they all wore black suits and similar ties, even when they waded through water and mud. They would change clothes at least once. Another is the Mammy. She was in almost every black family shown, at least the unattractive, large and/or vocal woman portion of her.
The entire film was built around the discrimination of black people by white town’s folk. All of the lynching and house burnings are some examples along with the murder of the two white boys for being civil rights activists.
The director did a good job of making an impact in this film. He did so by portraying the Klan members beating on the helpless black people after they came out of the church. He used a lot of violent drama. This film flowed together very nicely. One thing that he could have done to this film would be to make it shorter or put something in the middle of it. I became very bored and restless after an hour or so. The movie is two hours long.
It was a good movie, not great, but good. I would give it a six out of ten.
One film technique that was used very well was the background music and noise. At the beginning, there was a black choir singing gospel songs over a burning building; and at the end was the same choir singing over a scene of a graveyard. When the convictions came up, a screen freeze captured the men as they walked hand cuffed down the Court steps and turned black and white while a black priest talked about the murder that happened in the weeks before. Another technique used is the editing. During the climax, various press interviews of the locals came into the screen. It flowed perfectly. Also, the camera was shaking during violent scenes and car chases, an added bonus.
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