"Mississippi Burning": The Movie

 Anderson                 Gene Hackman
 Ward                          Willem Dafoe
 Mrs. Pell                    Frances McDormand
 Dep. Pell                   Brad Dourif
 Mayor Tilman          R. Lee Ermey
  Sheriff Stuckey    Gailard Sartain
  Townley                     Stephen Tobolowsky
  Frank Bailey            Michael Rooker
 Lester Cowens      Pruitt Taylor Vince
 Agent Monk              Badja Djola
 Agent Bird               Kevin Dunn
                   Orion Pictures presents a film directed by Alan Parker, and produced by
                   Frederick Zollo and Robert F. Colesberry. Written by Chris Gerolmo. Edited
                   by Gerry Hambling. Photography by Peter Biziou. Music by Trevor Jones.
                   Running time: 128 minutes. Classified R (1988) 
Reviews & Notes

  December  8, 1988

             The film's principal characters are two F.B.I. men sent down to fictional Jessup County, Miss. to look into the reported disappearance of the civil-rights workers.  The leader of the two-man team is Ward (Willem Dafoe), a straight-backed, neatly pressed young agent who goes by the book.   His partner, and the film's volatile center, is a not easily categorized fellow named Anderson (Gene Hackman) . A Mississippi redneck, as well as a former Mississippi county sheriff,
             Anderson is one of those independently minded Southerners who confound all out-of-state preconceptions about Mississippi, or any other place in the supposedly solid South. (Another  would be William Bradford Huie, the crusading Alabama-born-and-bred journalist, author of "Three Lives for Mississippi,, (1965), one of the first books about the  Chaney-GoodmanSchwerner case.) The tensions that develop between Ward and Anderson are not entirely unpredictable.  The film's resolution also depends on two rather unlikely character transformations.  Yet nothing long deters the accumulating dramatic momentum as "Mississippi Burning'"I proceeds and as the defense of the good, psalm-singing, white Christian murderers unravels....
             Mr. Hackman has possibly the best-written role of his career as scratchy, rumpled, down-home-talking redneck, who himself has murder heart.  He is sensational....  "Mississippi Burning" is first rate.
                                                                       Vincent Canby

 December 8, 1988
         'Burning': Potent But Problematic

             "Mississippi Burning" surveys the geography of racism, sheds light on the dark night of the soul.  Director Alan Parker stokes the inferno with cruelty, hatred and charring crosses, then  sifts the cold ashes for clues.  The mystery, ostensibly about the murder of three young civil  rights workers, is the inhumanity of man....
             Parker, a director of breadth, not depth, never supplies the big answers, but he does  powerfully depict the climate of the Confederacy in the "Freedom Summer" of 1964. 
             Mississippi Burning" offers an appalling litany of white supremacist atrocities in the guise of a  buddy detective thriller.  Gene Hackman gives a towering performance as Anderson, a former  sheriff wise to sleepy Southern streets, and Willem Dafoe is understated as Ward, the  principled straight arrow in charge of the FBI's search for three missing civil rights workers.
                                                                        Rita Kempley

January 8, 1989

                          "Mississippi Burning":  Generating Heat or Light?
                          Cinematic Segregation in a Story About Civil Rights

             The weight of "Mississippi Burning's" distortions crushes truth underfoot.  The truths sacrificed  here were moving ones that said much about America.  The simple recounting of those days  would make the hairs stand on end on all but the iciest of necks.  This story was savaged, it seems, in service of a clearly reactionary and outmoded idea: that white Americans would  shudder at the idea of heroes not cast in their images.
                                                                        Brent Staples 

January 9, 1989

               Fire This Time; With incendiary drama and a lightning pace, Mississippi Burning         illuminates an ugly chapter in American History -- and stokes a bitter debate.
             This movie is full of enough facts to make the viewer suspicious, and enough distortions to be the truth.  Maybe it is every bit as unfair to the FBI, which pursued the case vigorously and  effectively, as it is to Freedom Riders.  But whose truth is it anyway?  Every film -- or every  biography or news report or memory -- is distorted, if only by one's perceptions.   To create art is to pour fact into form; and sometimes the form shapes the facts.  William Randolph  Hearst never said "Rosebud," and Evita Peron didn't sing pop, and Richard III was probably a  swell guy, no matter how Shakespeare libeled him.  This is what artists do: shape ideas and  grudges and emotions into words and sounds and pictures.  They see "historical accuracy" as a  creature of ideological fashion.  Artists take the long view; they figure their visions can outlast  political revisionism.
             Mississippi Burning is rooted as firmly in film history as it is in social history.  It takes its cue  not so much from the buddy films as from Warner Bros. melodramas of the 1930s, like Black  Legion and They Won't Forget, which seized some social-issue headlines and fit them into brisk, dynamic fiction.  It is movie journalism: tabloid with a master touch.  And the master, the suave manipulator, is Alan Parker.  By avocation he is a caricaturist, and by vocation too.  He chooses gross faces, grand subjects, base motives, all for immediate impact.  The redneck conspirators are drawn as goofy genetic trash: there's not a three-digit IQ in the lot, not a chin  in a carload.  These are not bad men -they're baaaad guys.  And the blacks are better than  good; their faces reveal them as martyrs, sanctified by centuries of suffering.  Caricature is a  fine dramatic tradition, when you have two hours to tell a story and a million things to say and  show.
             What Parker hopes to show moviegoers of 1989 is a fable about 1964 -- perhaps the very last historical moment when most American whites could see Southern blacks purely as  righteous rebels for a just cause.
                                                                       Richard Corliss

January 8, 1989

                 . . . . [Parker and Gerolmo] have created an unashamed, hugely effective if slick melodrama  of a brutality that does not, I am sure, overstate the conditions.  (Two years after the deaths of  Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, but before the trial of the accused civil rights violators, Dr. King visited Philadelphia, Miss., and found it "a terrible town, the worst I've seen.")  At the  center of the film is the serviceable if not exactly inspired conflict between two very different  kinds of F.B.I. agents.  Reduced to its superificial esentials, "Mississippi Burning" is a buddy film.  On the one side is Ward (Willem Dafoe), the clean-cut, by-the book, ethical F.B.I. agent from the North.  On the other side is Anderson (Gene Hackman), a renegade redneck  Mississipian, himself a former county sheriff and a man who is not above using dirty tricks in the cause of racial justice.
                 It is this character that is the film's philosophical undoing, as well as it's remarkable dramatic core. . . .
                                                                       Vincent Canby

January 9, 1989

             Docudrama is a dubious genre; something that pretends to be docudrama is even more  dubious.  Mississippi Burning was patently based on the murder of three civil rights workers in June 1964 -- a local black, James Chaney, and two white Northerners, Andrew Goodman  and Michael Schwerner.  Admittedly it would be difficult to make a film on that subject and  keep it more document than invention, but this film doesn't try very hard.  It wants praise for facing facts fearlessly without being bound by them.  A few lines, tucked in at the very end after the long closing list of credits, tell us that Mississippi Burning is not factual, that it was only suggested by the facts.  This strategy licensed the filmmakers-Chris Gerolmo, the writer,
             Alan Parker, the director, Frederick Zollo and Robert F. Colesberry, the producers-to lard the story with movie stuff in order to make it "play". . . ..[t]e biggest surprise in the film is that the states of Mississippi and Alabama cooperated in the making of Mississippi Burning. of course the production put money in the pockets of  residents in the area-many of them are seen in the film-but I doubt that this would have been  decisive 24 years ago.  Perhaps the clearest sign of progress in race relations down there is that the location shooting was done where it was.

                                                                     Stanley Kauffman

 January 22, 1989
Where Mississippi Burned: Civil rights film rekindles horrors of the state's  past

             The racial violence that erupted in this lumber-milling community 24 years ago is like a festering wound that refuses to heal. . . .
             "They (the film makers) just want to stir up trouble between the races.  It's all out of  proportion," declares Lawrence Rainey, the former Neshoba County sheriff who was exonerated of conspiracy charges in connection with the murders.
             Disagreeing is the 1964 president of the Neshoba County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  Jessie Gary considers the picture an important  reminder of the mistreatment blacks endured.

                                                                           Hal Lipper

February 12, 1989
Winner, Best Brouhaha; The fireworks over 'Mississippi Burning' have generated unexpected publicity and a box office boost.
                       Will the controversy dampen the film's chances for an Oscar?

             When the 1988 Academy Award nominations are announced at 5:30 a.m. Hollywood time  Wednesday, "Mississippi Burning" is likely to be one of the five nominees for best picture.
             Gene Hackman's portrayal of a sometimes unscrupulous, southern-born FBI agent is an  equally good bet for best actor recognition.
             Just how many other Oscars the film will be nominated for, or win, is question making the rounds of studio executive suites.  For if there were nominations for the most battered and  denounced picture of the year, 11 Mississippi Burning" would have no rivals.
             For the 4,632 Motion Picture academy voters, the issue is whether a movie should be judged on its own cinematic terms - was the script well-structured, the directing forceful? -- or whether political outcry the movie sparks, the impact of the movie on society, should also be taken into account. taking real-world political considerations into account.  An obviously well-intentioned attempt to evoke the half-forgotten racial violence of the "Freedom Summer" of 1964 in segregated Mississippi, the $ 14-million Orion Pictures release has hardly won its makers the congratulations they expected from veterans of that era's civil rights struggle.
             Instead, the emotionally charged drama has been attacked as an inexcusable twisting of history  by Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond and other well-known civil rights movement veterans and  African-Americans.  NAACP executive director Benjamin L. Hooks said the film "reeks of  dishonesty, deception and fraud." Said Willis Edwards, president of the NAACP's  Hollywood-Beverly Hills chapter, "What I have a problem with is the insulting way Orion  would even attach its name to such distorted history, causing pain."
                                                                     Martin Kasindorf

      July 27, 1989
 Mississippi Burning

             In Alan Parker's revisionist thriller, the FBI comes to the rescue of the civil rights movement  while the black locals cower in the background.  Set in the summer of 1964, 11 Mississippi  Burning" offers a litany of KKK atrocities in the guise of a buddy detective mystery.  Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe costar as incompatible G-men -- a cagey good oll boy and a  principled straight arrow in charge of the FBI's search for three missing civil rights workers. . .
               Despite the towering performances of Hackman and McDormand, the movie's epic visuals and Parker's good intentions, "Mississippi Burning" has a bogus feel.  Based on an actual case -- the murder of black activist James Chaney and white colleagues Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner -- it's the right story, but with the wrong heroes.  There's this nagging  feeling that the story begins where it ought to have ended -- with the deaths of the three young  activists.

                                              Rita Kempley, Hal Hinson, Joseph McLellan

February 4, 1990

               Another Case of Murder in Mississippi; TV Movie on the Killing of Three Civil
                RightsWorkers In 1964 Tries to Fill In What "Mississippi Burning" Left Out

             The film was criticized for telling the story from a strictly white point of view.  Its black  characters pretty much stood around, looking stalwart and resolute but immobile, like the  Indians in Old West movies.
             "A lot of excitement and a lot of blood and a lot of action," observed Ben Chaney Jr., 37,  brother of James Chaney, "but it didn't reflect the attitude of the people who were there at the time, and that distorted history.". . .
             Frederick Zollo, producer of  "Mississippi Burning," said he was "surprised about the  enormous reaction."   He said the movie was intended as "a drama, as powerful as we could make it, using the three  murders as a backdrop to the study of racism in Neshoba County (changed here to Jessup  County) and in the larger view of America.   "I think we certainly succeeded in that respect.  I think we galvanized a nation, which a good  movie should do. . . ."

                                                                         Irv Letofsky

  Movie Links
Roger Ebert's 1988 Review (****)
UC Berkeley's Film Bibliography
Jim Emerson's Critical Review
Mississippi Burning Trial Homepage