Date: Sun, 07 Feb 1999 14:20:48 -0800
From: Frances Beal <>
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Organization: Black Radical Congress
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Subject: [BRC-ALL] [Fwd: Mississippi Burning Review]
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Date: Sun, 07 Feb 1999 14:13:15 -0800
From: Frances Beal <>
Organization: Black Radical Congress
To: BRC ALL <>
Subject: Mississippi Burning Review

Warped lens distorts Mississippi Burning

By Frances M. Beal, Frontline, 27 February 1989

Cineamatic expression based on historical events does not always have to assiduously follow the truth. In fact artistic license can sometimes highlight a greater truth through the process of creation. Unfortunately Alan Parker’s film Mississippi Burning reflects an abuse of literary license. Purportedly based on the June 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Parker takes aim at a truly heroic era in U.S. history. Unfortunately, he operates through the prism of a distorted lens which not only dismally fails to transmit the essence of the era, but produces a fabric of lies that perverts the 1960s struggle for democracy in the South.

The script is actually quite trite. Two federal cops breeze into town to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers. Ward (Willem Dafoe) is a Kenndy-type, play-by-the-rules FBI agent; his partner Anderson (Gene Hackman) is a Mississippi-bred pragmatist who believes in fighting fire with fire. And there are certainly a whole lot of blazes in this film. The audience is bombarded with senseless violence from the first bloody scene, to a seemingly endless round of church bombings, burning of homes, lynchings and beatings of an absolutely shadowy and passive Black population. The break in the case comes when Hackman’s romantic advances to the wife of the Deputy Sheriff, a suspected klansman, ends up in her being brutally beaten. Dafoe gives in to Hackman’s urgings to throw away the book and employ a series of illegal dirty FBI tricks, including importing a Black FBI agent to threaten the mayor with castration. Finally, there are a series of indictments and the movie ends with Black and white singing together in a burned out churchyard.

In sum, Mississippi Burning turns Blacks into shadowy figures at the fringe of life, passively enduring racist violence. Equally perverted, Parker transforms the FBI into a modern-day white cavalry which rides into town to do battle for the fearful darkies against the irrational klansmen.

Dorothy Zellner, a white southerner who took part in Freedom Summer in 1964, summed up the negative assessment about this film, held by a lot of activists, when she noted: The real problem is that it distorts the basic fact of the Civil Rights Movement: that Black people, in an electric moment in history, organized hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. to obtain elementary civil rights for everyone.

Responding to such criticism Parker said: Our film isn’t about the civil rights movement. It’s about why there was a need for a civil rights movement. And because it’s a movie I felt it had to be fictionalized. The two heroes in the story had to be white. That is a reflection of our society as much as of the film industry. At this point in time, it could not have been made any other way.

That anyone can purport to do a film about Mississippi in 1964 and push Blacks to the sidelines and make the FBI the heroes can only be understood if this film is viewed through the prism of the reactionary cultural mores of the 1980s [and ’90s], particularly the clear emergence of an anti-democratic trend in U.S. popular culture. Part of this process has been the resurgence of racism in the arts and a whitening of roles and themes. The 1980s has witnessed a reversal in shakeup in mass cultural expression that accompanied the 1960s political upsurge. Indeed, the cultural gurus of today are far removed from those that produced the Roots saga which riveted the nation’s attention for a whole week in 1977. In today’s cultural climate, a serious leading film role for a Black is as rare as an extinct species. As Reagan destroyed many of the anti-racist achievements of the 1960s and relegated Blacks to the fringe of U.S. life in the political arena, Hollywood’s culture meisters followed suit once again rendering minorities invisible.

Mississippi Burning is a perfect case in point. By conciliating the racist assumptions of the 1980s, Parker ends up producing a thoroughly racist product despite his stated intentions to the contrary. Parker’s way of reducing Blacks to the invisible man takes the form of casting Blacks as background color, essential props on a landscape upon which his white stars cavort amid a succession of church burnings, lynchings, beatings, car chases.

Parker’s white blindspot gets exposed in the very story line. Beatings, lynchings, burnings and violence against Blacks is so intense that the viewer’s emotional sensors are constantly on edge, but this is all taken in stride. Howeve, white womanhood assaulted by her klansman husband represents the last straw in what civilized human beings should be expected to tolerate. White blood is clearly much more valuable than black blood.

The other anti-democratic trend in cultural expression which is at the heart of Mississippi Burning is the depiction of irrational violence and the resort to fac=scist methods to resolve the problem. Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood have perfected the genre: gruesome violence, irrational in its source, has been a major cinematic theme of this decade. The overall efffect has been a numbing brutalization and dehumanization of audiences which has clearly translated into more willing acceptance of higher levels of both official violence by the state and unofficial, vigilante force. Audiences routinely fed this diet of violence are much less likely to fret about the legalities of police brutality against Black youth, or the vigilante mentality of the Bernard Goetzes of this country. {Goetz shot and killed a Black youth on a NY subway who he claimed had accosted him for money.)

It is a particularly loathsome reality that a film purportedly based on the murder of civil rights workers should fall into this genre. In today’s world, the resort to extra legal methods is widely accepted, particularly when the alleged bad guy is a young Black male. After all, in today’s world, that is the typical criminal element.

Yet, Mississippi Burning tries to seduce the audience with this reactionary message. In the name of law and order, in the name of justice (this time, obscenely, racial justice) the film promotes illegal behavior on the part of law enforcement agencies. At a time when the defense of civil liberties and civil rights is at an all-time premium, it is practically criminal to promote vigilanteism and paramilitary solutions. Democratic rights have been bought at the cost of too much blood to allow this version of events to go unchecked.

Yet, in the name of anti-racist values, Parker promotes this reactionary but trite message which then allows him to commit his second major perversion of the truth: the role of the FBI.

This FBI/hero characterization borders on the obscene when compared to reality. Exhaustive exposures have proven that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was an ally of the white racists of the period. Official policy was to view the Civil Rights Movement as subversive and to consider Black activists and their white allies as communist agitators. The Cointel (Counter Intelligence) Program was the FBI’s response to the demand for freedom, not a lovable Gene Hackman. Yet Parker, who makes much of his search for truth, permits his imagination to create an image of the FBI as a resolute ally which embraces a cringing and fearful Black populace.

However, the law and order advocates of the 1980s wouldn’t have accepted any other treatment of the FBI. Since the cash nexus still determines the ideological bent of today’s culture vendors, Alan Parker ends up fueling the forces for reaction in this country. Mississippi Burning shows that the white man’s burden is very much in force. Today, the struggle against racism isn’t so clear and agressive Black demands to equality raise specters of fear in the hearts of many whites. Given the racial animosity of the 1980s it is with not a little bit of nostalgia that the cultural pacesetters look back at their version of a non violent era in the Black struggle: Passive Blacks and a benevolent FBI.

The problem is that the good old days that the Alan Parkers of this world would have us go back to, never existed. If they did, Jim Crow would still be alive and well in Mississippi.