Do some films deserve to be forgotten? Not necessarily for their dullness, trashiness, or the sin of being an unnecessary remake – but for something more fundamental? Perhaps we should condemn to the dustbin of cinema history ‘good’ films that knowingly distort the truth of events, that misrepresent the reality behind their own stories, or that trespass onto ground their creators should steer clear of. If we were to take this view, and there have been many who vehemently do, Mississippi Burning would doubtless be one of the first to go. Although in many ways brilliant, Alan Parker’s 1988 film about the aftermath of the real 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in the Deep South has attracted barrages of criticism over the years from almost every standpoint possible. For the sake of history, should it be taken off Netflix; or would we be then letting perfect become the enemy of good?
“we recognize that amid the poverty and sadism of this small town, knowing how things are is far from understanding them”
Mississippi Burning centers around the FBI investigation into the disappearance of three civil rights student workers (two white and one black) who, as we see in the opening scene, are murdered by a gang of laughing police and Klan members on their way out of the town they had been campaigning in. To say that violence, and the fear of violence, dominate the rest of the film would be an understatement. The viewer is confronted again and again, with an almost predictable regularity, with beatings and arson attacks from the mob, always by night and conducted by faceless yet familiar men. As the gruff detective Anderson (Gene Hackman) tells his younger, naïve counterpart Ward, (Willem Dafoe) ‘now you know what you’re getting into’, we recognize that amid the poverty and sadism of this small town, knowing how things are is far from understanding them.
The film’s greatest artistic achievement is that it reveals Mississippi as its own planet: a place where silent threats and terrible stories hang in the atmosphere of every conversation, where power only exists to pursue its victims, and where, in the words of the snarling local sheriff, ‘the rest of America don’t mean jack shit.’ In one scene, dozens of suited, middle-aged FBI bureaucrats literally wade through a swamp looking for the missing bodies. Even native Mississippian Anderson is immediately out of his element – ‘You ain’t from here no more’, a deputy spits at him during an interview. Maybe the most sickening aspect of the local authorities is their jovial untouchability; they mix with Klan leaders in broad daylight, brazenly throw racial slurs at the press, and revel in the knowledge that they are invulnerable – recalling the cheerfulness of Tom Lehrer’s satirical song of Southern nostalgia ‘I Wanna Go Back to Dixie’: ‘I wanna talk with Southern gentlemen/ And put that white sheet on again/ I ain’t seen one good lynchin’ in years!’ The most chilling illustration of the town’s racial dynamic is the court scene, where we begin to think that somehow justice is about to catch up to the perpetrators – right until the judge announces he is suspending the sentences. This moment was for me Mississippi Burning’s pinnacle, bringing the viewer a new hopelessness as the camera focuses in first on the whooping, gloating faces of the guilty, and then on the somber black families in the gallery, grimly watching their own fate at the hands of an utterly corrupted system.
So, is Mississippi Burning an honest, much-window into a place and time that existed not so long ago, a post-slavery America carrying its horrific past into the present? Its critics have been less forgiving. The denouement is historically inaccurate at its core, and the entire concept was condemned by many, including Coretta Scott King, as ‘another Hollywood whitewash of the black freedom struggle’. Considering confessions were extracted in the real 1964 case by an unglamorous combination of bribery, hassling and public pressure (not quite the Clint Eastwood-esque vigilante ‘gutter’ methods Hackman’s character resorts to), historians like Robert Toplin accuse Parker of ‘leaving the impression that journalism and public opinion had little influence on events.’ Today, as we collectively roll our eyes at the words ‘based on a true story’, such details might seem insignificant, but creators of films like this one are bound by different rules. Parker’s view was that he was trying to reach people who knew ‘nothing of that historical event…to cause them to react to it viscerally.’ He maintained that his story was the real history, not the hundreds of unwatched documentaries on the subject that made no difference to a generation’s ignorance. Screenwriter Chris Gerolmo knew he was making fiction out of reality: he sees the film as ‘a big, passionate, violent detective story set against the greatest sea-change in American life in the 20th century, the civil rights movement.’
“Nothing is hidden here, not the horribly burnt old man lying in his bed as his wife quietly weeps next to him; not the boy who cuts his father down from a noose”
Good intentions notwithstanding, if the problem in America isn’t the truth, it’s the author – a lesson the white writer William Styron learned in the Sixties with his 4th novel, a fictionalized first-person account of Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt in 1831. Even James Baldwin, supportive of the novel’s publication, warned of the consequences: ‘Bill’s going to catch it from black and white’, and he did; an entire collection of essays was published demolishing Styron for his presumption to write the slave psyche, and the film version was cancelled partly due to fears of the violence it might provoke in an already seething America. Yet Parker and Gerolmo were first criticized for ignoring the civil rights issue and black voices – thus happily wading into another swamp of suspicion. Mississippi Burning didn’t try to do what Selma did in 2014: Parker stresses that his film was about the ‘need’ for a change, not the change itself. Gerolmo rather bitterly recalls, thinking of King’s criticisms, he would never have dared to make a ‘black movie…[as opposed to] a white one.’ And certainly, one could say that the film strikes a permissible balance. While the FBI are in danger, they never suffer as the town’s black population do. Nothing is hidden here, not the horribly burnt old man lying in his bed as his wife quietly weeps next to him; not the boy who cuts his father down from a noose; not the churchgoers assaulted as they leave Sunday service. We never lose sight of the undeniable fact that, in the words of Bernard Malamud, the author of an equally brilliant portrayal of racial hatred in a very different setting: ‘we’re all in history, that’s sure, but some more than others.’ Malamud and the makers of Mississippi Burning agree – to be firmly ‘in history’ is a curse, and a curse that may touch – but not rest upon – those who only visit its home ground. Perhaps, especially in the minefield that is the American cultural landscape, a mythical ‘common history’ will never be possible – and grows even less so with every new cultural appropriation scandal and BuzzFeed ‘wokeness’ test, and with every ominous indication that the political boundaries are being redrawn along ethnic lines. But if Mississippi Burning never came into existence, who would be better off for it? Only those resentful few who wish to push the worst pieces of that nation’s history back under the carpet.