Reviews & Notes
The film's principal characters are two F.B.I. men sent down to
Jessup County, Miss. to look into the reported disappearance of the
workers. The leader of the two-man team is Ward (Willem Dafoe), a
straight-backed, neatly pressed young agent who goes by the
His partner, and the film's volatile center, is a not easily
fellow named Anderson (Gene Hackman) . A Mississippi redneck, as well
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
the supposedly solid South. (Another would be William Bradford
the crusading Alabama-born-and-bred journalist, author of "Three Lives
for Mississippi,, (1965), one of the first books about the
case.) The tensions that develop between Ward and Anderson are not
unpredictable. The film's resolution also depends on two rather
character transformations. Yet nothing long deters the
dramatic momentum as "Mississippi Burning'"I proceeds and as the
of the good, psalm-singing, white Christian murderers unravels....
Mr. Hackman has possibly the best-written role of his career as
rumpled, down-home-talking redneck, who himself has murder heart.
He is sensational.... "Mississippi Burning" is first rate.
THE WASHINGTON POST
December 8, 1988
'Burning': Potent But Problematic
"Mississippi Burning" surveys the geography of racism, sheds light on
dark night of the soul. Director Alan Parker stokes the inferno
cruelty, hatred and charring crosses, then sifts the cold ashes
clues. The mystery, ostensibly about the murder of three young
rights workers, is the inhumanity of man....
Parker, a director of breadth, not depth, never supplies the big
but he does powerfully depict the climate of the Confederacy in
"Freedom Summer" of 1964.
Mississippi Burning" offers an appalling litany of white supremacist
in the guise of a buddy detective thriller. Gene Hackman
a towering performance as Anderson, a former sheriff wise to
Southern streets, and Willem Dafoe is understated as Ward, the
straight arrow in charge of the FBI's search for three missing civil
THE NEW YORK TIMES
"Mississippi Burning": Generating Heat or Light?
January 8, 1989
Cinematic Segregation in a Story About Civil Rights
The weight of "Mississippi Burning's" distortions crushes truth
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
that white Americans would shudder at the idea of heroes not cast
in their images.
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
distortions to be the truth. Maybe it is every bit as unfair to
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,
only by one's perceptions. To create art is to pour fact
form; and sometimes the form shapes the facts. William
Hearst never said "Rosebud," and Evita Peron didn't sing pop, and
III was probably a swell guy, no matter how Shakespeare libeled
This is what artists do: shape ideas and grudges and emotions
words and sounds and pictures. They see "historical accuracy" as
a creature of ideological fashion. Artists take the long
they figure their visions can outlast political revisionism.
Mississippi Burning is rooted as firmly in film history as it is in
history. It takes its cue not so much from the buddy films
as from Warner Bros. melodramas of the 1930s, like Black Legion
They Won't Forget, which seized some social-issue headlines and fit
into brisk, dynamic fiction. It is movie journalism: tabloid with
a master touch. And the master, the suave manipulator, is Alan
By avocation he is a caricaturist, and by vocation too. He
gross faces, grand subjects, base motives, all for immediate
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
good; their faces reveal them as martyrs, sanctified by centuries of
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 --
the very last historical moment when most American whites could see
blacks purely as righteous rebels for a just cause.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
. . . . [Parker and Gerolmo] have created an unashamed, hugely
if slick melodrama of a brutality that does not, I am sure,
the conditions. (Two years after the deaths of Chaney,
and Schwerner, but before the trial of the accused civil rights
Dr. King visited Philadelphia, Miss., and found it "a terrible town,
worst I've seen.") At the center of the film is the
if not exactly inspired conflict between two very different kinds
of F.B.I. agents. Reduced to its superificial esentials,
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
using dirty tricks in the cause of racial justice.
January 8, 1989
It is this character that is the film's philosophical undoing, as well
as it's remarkable dramatic core. . . .
THE NEW REPUBLIC
January 9, 1989
Docudrama is a dubious genre; something that pretends to be docudrama
even more dubious. Mississippi Burning was patently based
the murder of three civil rights workers in June 1964 -- a local black,
James Chaney, and two white Northerners, Andrew Goodman and
Schwerner. Admittedly it would be difficult to make a film on
subject and keep it more document than invention, but this film
try very hard. It wants praise for facing facts fearlessly
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
factual, that it was only suggested by the facts. This strategy
the filmmakers-Chris Gerolmo, the writer,
Alan Parker, the director, Frederick Zollo and Robert F. Colesberry,
producers-to lard the story with movie stuff in order to make it
. . ..[t]e biggest surprise in the film is that the states of
and Alabama cooperated in the making of Mississippi Burning. of course
the production put money in the pockets of residents in the
of them are seen in the film-but I doubt that this would have
decisive 24 years ago. Perhaps the clearest sign of progress in
relations down there is that the location shooting was done where it
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
ago is like a festering wound that refuses to heal. . . .
"They (the film makers) just want to stir up trouble between the
It's all out of proportion," declares Lawrence Rainey, the former
Neshoba County sheriff who was exonerated of conspiracy charges in
with the murders.
Disagreeing is the 1964 president of the Neshoba County chapter of the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Gary considers the picture an important reminder of the
February 12, 1989
Winner, Best Brouhaha;
The fireworks over 'Mississippi Burning' have generated unexpected
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.
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
making the rounds of studio executive suites. For if there were
for the most battered and denounced picture of the year, 11
Burning" would have no rivals.
For the 4,632 Motion Picture academy voters, the issue is whether a
should be judged on its own cinematic terms - was the script
the directing forceful? -- or whether political outcry the movie
the impact of the movie on society, should also be taken into account.
taking real-world political considerations into account. An
well-intentioned attempt to evoke the half-forgotten racial violence of
the "Freedom Summer" of 1964 in segregated Mississippi, the $
Orion Pictures release has hardly won its makers the congratulations
expected from veterans of that era's civil rights struggle.
Instead, the emotionally charged drama has been attacked as an
twisting of history by Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond and other
well-known civil rights movement veterans and
NAACP executive director Benjamin L. Hooks said the film "reeks
dishonesty, deception and fraud." Said Willis Edwards, president of the
NAACP's Hollywood-Beverly Hills chapter, "What I have a problem
is the insulting way Orion would even attach its name to such
history, causing pain."
THE WASHINGTON POST
July 27, 1989
In Alan Parker's revisionist thriller, the FBI comes to the rescue of
civil rights movement while the black locals cower in the
Set in the summer of 1964, 11 Mississippi Burning" offers a
of KKK atrocities in the guise of a buddy detective mystery. Gene
Hackman and Willem Dafoe costar as incompatible G-men -- a cagey good
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
James Chaney and white colleagues Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner
it's the right story, but with the wrong heroes. There's this
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
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Another Case of Murder in Mississippi; TV Movie on the Killing of Three
February 4, 1990
RightsWorkers In 1964 Tries to Fill In What "Mississippi Burning" Left
The film was criticized for telling the story from a strictly white
of view. Its black characters pretty much stood around,
stalwart and resolute but immobile, like the Indians in Old West
"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
the attitude of the people who were there at the time, and that
history.". . .
Frederick Zollo, producer of "Mississippi Burning," said he was
about the enormous reaction." He said the movie was
as "a drama, as powerful as we could make it, using the three
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
a nation, which a good movie should do. . . ."