It’s a simple shot–a static camera focused on two water fountains. One is labeled Whites, the other, looking a good thirty years out of date, reads Colored. No narration is necessary to explain what we’re seeing. This is the Jim Crow South at work. The film cuts to a church in flames, moving the audience from the purported equality of separation to the violence just under the surface.
And so we enter Mississippi Burning, Alan Parker’s 1988 film about FBI men investigating the disappearance of three civil rights workers during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
That these missing men are dead is not in doubt: Parker shows us the murder immediately after the opening credits. We know nothing of these men except for their racial identities (two are white, one is African-American) and that they have been ambushed while driving at night. We know the police are involved, their flashing lights having convinced the men to pull over. And we get a brief glimpse of Michael Rooker (still in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer mode) threatening the car’s driver, who is soon shot point blank in the head. The screen blacks out, and we hear more gunshots. As an unknown assailant brags, “You only left me a nigger, but at least I shot me a nigger,” we see a title card that says, simply, Mississippi, 1964.
All of this takes less than ten minutes, proving that Parker, whatever his excesses in Pink Floyd: The Wall, can be a fantastically efficient director, milking maximum impact from minimal information. The opening to Mississippi Burning is so tight, so powerful, that it could be used as a time capsule piece documenting racial inequality for someone a century removed from the events.
Now, the bare background laid out for us, the film introduces its heroes, oddly matched FBI agents Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Anderson (Gene Hackman). The former is a tight-assed, by-the-book kid (Dafoe seems slightly too old for the role as written) in charge of the investigation. The latter is a grinning, cynical former Mississippi sheriff more interested in results than protocol. They dislike each other, as all such movie cops must.
Anderson and Ward arrive in a small town modeled on (but never identified as) Philadelphia, Mississippi. The locals are, unsurprisingly, unsympathetic to the investigation. The more naïve folks believe the case to be a scam set up by Northern agitators to embarrass the South. The local Klan boys know better, and they up the violence, hoping to intimidate the agents into minding their own business.
Dafoe makes easy work of the thankless ball-buster role, preparing the way for a great Hackman performance. His Anderson exudes good ol’ boy charisma, never more than when he finds the only folks willing to talk: the women in the local beauty parlor. In particular, he makes a connection with the wife (Frances McDormand) of a Klan-connected deputy.
Hackman’s smile betrays both sympathy for McDormand’s dead-end life and disbelief in her shitkicker husband’s story. Anderson is halfway between Popeye Doyle and Royal Tenenbaum, an affable man on the edge of violence. He is the film’s center, finding the clues his more idealistic partner can’t, but also more attuned to the subtleties of race relations where Ward charges ahead without considering the impact of his Northern attitudes. Anderson also realizes the danger he’s bringing to the deputy’s wife; Ward doesn’t care. Only when she’s brutally beaten by her husband does Ward come around to Anderson’s by-any-means tactics.
Mississippi Burning eventually settles into a straight police procedural, with the usual beats. Parker’s sharp eye elevates this material, with potent imagery throughout. He frames each shot for maximum effect. In one of the film’s most effective scenes, the Klan assaults the crowd at a Black church meeting. Victims run, scream, and take horrific beatings. Parker’s focus shifts to one boy, praying silently in front of the church. A Klansman approaches, watches the boy for a few, tense moments, and then knocks the kid unconscious. It’s unsettling, more than a chaotic, all-seeing view of the attack would be. Other films are far more violent, but few hit this hard.
Concerns about historical accuracy plagued the film on its release. (The film takes place in fictional Jessup County, the names have been changed, etc.) Civil rights veterans complained that the film glorifies the FBI, an organization often antagonistic to the movement, placing two white men at the center of a Black story. These concerns are understandable, but, I would argue, irrelevant.
In truth the FBI was essential to the investigation, as public pressure forced J. Edgar Hoover to act. Bureau agents apparently utilized a Mafia informant to forcibly extract information about the location of the missing boys. (The film depicts this, too, again changing the details a bit.)
The three missing men–Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman–were eventually found, buried in an earthen dam. Federal prosecutors were able to obtain a number of convictions for the murders, although the segregationist judge presiding over the case handed out lenient sentences, none for more than ten years. The film ends with these convictions, a small victory given the violence of the crime and the Klan in general. Change is a slow, painful process, full of disappointments.
The deputy’s battered wife stays. Jessup County is her home. The future of the South falls to people like her, standing in her wrecked house, watching the federal agents leave. This is not a triumphant moment, but one of uncertainty. The case is solved, some form of justice has been served, and it’s on to the next tragedy. There will be many more.
For further reading on the real case:. Click here.