Mississippi Burning: The Politics of Film
There are few films that will kick you in the shins, take your breath away, and scare the heck out of you all at the same time. Alan Parker’s portrayal of racism and resistance in the Magnolia State is one of those movies. Parker’s impressive previous directing credits included Pink Floyd: The Wall and Midnight Express.
Mississippi Burning is based on the FBI’s investigation of the murder of 3 young civil rights activists during the legendary “Freedom Summer” of 1964: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
Two of the actors received well deserved Oscar nominations: Gene Hackman (Best Actor) and Frances McDormand (Best Supporting Actress). Willem DeFoe probably deserved a nomination for his gutsy portrayal of a “by the book” FBI agent who ultimately has a change of heart and ends up embracing violence and intimidation as a way to fight racist murderers.
“Baseball is the only place where a black man—Hackman
can wave a stick at a white man and not start a riot.”
“Some things are worth dying for.”—DeFoe
“Down here things are different.—Hackman
Here they believe some things are worth killing for.”
Parker is known for his dark film visions and his powerful use of graphic violence as a storytelling technique. This film is no exception. In this case, the director uses violent scenes to emphasize the extreme racial hatred promoted by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a truly frightening view into the minds of racists living in the deep south.
I’m sure that this movie must have inspired anger among some southern viewers who resent the crass portrayal of small-town Mississippi culture that resulted from the lasting legacy of human enslavement. But racial prejudice was not the sole property of the South. In 1964, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had accused Martin Luther King of being a Communist. (By the way, for some insight into Hoover’s hypocritical views on race, I recommend a controversial book by Millie McGhee, entitled Secrets Uncovered, J Edgar Hoover — Passing for White?)
Despite the FBI Director’s own personal views on race relations, this major confrontation between federal authorities and local law-enforcement agencies and politicians continued throughout the decade as Kennedy and Johnson sought to put an end to segregation. White supremacist governors and mayors demanded a recognition of states’ rights while the Department of Justice saw some southern sheriffs departments and county officials as nothing but a bunch of corrupt outlaws.
The tension in this film builds to a crashing crescendo when rebellion, hatred, and chaos break out across the screen in a panorama of fire and destruction.
Gene Hackman’s character displays both cynical resignation and astounding resilience in the face of a 300-year tradition of suppression of the Black man. If you can find no empathy for the poor sharecroppers of southern plantations or the poverty-stricken children as depicted in this film, then you should check your pulse to see if you are still alive.
Alan Parker confronts racism and the KKK straight with no chaser, even including a terrifying lynching scene. His message in Mississippi Burning is clear and unmistakable: Violent racism is an evil which no healthy society can condone or tolerate!
Oliver Stone and Alan Parker both do an excellent job of using the medium of film to expose the twisted underbelly of our collective history as a nation and perhaps some of our collective unconscious as well.
I realize that Parker sees Stone as his “antagonist,” so Alan may not appreciate my comparison, but historical fiction and well-produced docudramas are often very effective tools in pursuing social justice. Mississippi Burning is among a handful of cinema classics that can actually change lives and inspire effective social change. One might argue that some of Stone’s projects, such as El Salvador, JFK, and Malcolm X, also serve to elucidate disturbing moral conflicts and crippling political hypocrisy.
The Costa-Gavras film Missing with Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon is another one of those kinds of movies. These films have definitely changed the way I look at the world. In this way, I believe cinema achieves its highest calling. Why not try to raise some social consciousness? What more could you ask for from this medium? Indeed, the petty virtues of sheer entertainment seem to pale by comparison. . . .
To put it simply, Mississippi Burning is one of the best movies ever made.
It’s included on my all-time favorites list.
(Originally published at Medium: https://firstname.lastname@example.org/film-review-6bef0cfbc6af)