Fact And Fiction In Mississippi Burning

by Rachel Bellwoar

In 1964, three civil rights activists were murdered after getting arrested earlier in the day for speeding. Mississippi Burning is a fictionalized retelling of the FBI investigation into their deaths. Like Green Book, the film fielded controversy after its release, with family members of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner speaking out against it. Robert Brent Toplin’s review of the film for Perspectives on History magazine is one of the best I’ve found so far, for reading up on the issue, but by design it’s hard to separate fact from fiction, like Agent Ward (Willem Dafoe) asking for a hundred more men, and getting them without any hassle. If this was the story Alan Parker and Chris Gerolmo wanted to tell (the director and writer of Mississippi Burning, respectfully) – focusing on white FBI agents instead of black and white civil rights workers – I wish they had interrogated their subjects more, instead of enabling the “white savior” trope to take root.

What was the thinking of the people in charge, during this investigation? Why were they willing to devote more resources? The deputy’s wife (Frances McDormand) makes a comment once about how this case would’ve been received if two of the civil rights activists hadn’t been white, and it’s a question that deserves attention but gets covered in one line (the same goes for J. Edgar Hoover not being a civil rights supporter – we’re told he believed Martin Luther King was a communist but that’s it).

Mississippi Burning does have points to recommend it. Gene Hackman’s performance as Agent Anderson is a master class in acting. Older than Ward but technically below him in rank, he’s like the trumpet pitcher, a local, carnivorous flower, he takes to –a natural storyteller, who uses those gifts to lure people into saying too much. Helping him sell this charade are Aude Bronson-Howard’s costumes, which immediately tell you who he is, apart from the other agents. Sometimes it’s a lighter suit color. Usually he’s not wearing a jacket. Ward is also easily identifiable, with his immaculate suit and clean-cut hair. In his commentary track, Parker mentions Dafoe found the character after landing on the costume and the haircut. He also points out which scenes were filmed on location and which were on sets. He doesn’t talk all the way through or bring up the controversy until the end. “… if it opened up a debate to discuss racism in America, and if they use the inadequacy of my film, in order to point that out, I’m still proud…,” Parker says.

I always turn on the subtitles, but if you’re counting on them to understand what’s being said, there are a considerable number of words left out. Mississippi Burning is also very cinematic. There’s a scene where one of the locals gives up information and it’s memorable because of the way it was shot.

Mississippi Burning is available on Blu-Ray and DVD starting June 18th from Kino Lorber.

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