The tagline for Andrew Parker’s Mississippi Burning was: “1964- The Year America was at War with itself”. Immediately we can draw contemporary parallels, whether that is the controversies surrounding Trump’s administration, or tensions closer to home, such as the aftermath of Brexit. Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe are FBI agents investigating the murders of three civil rights activists in Mississippi, 1964. The audience know who is guilty, and it seems the characters in the film do, and yet the process of punishing these men for their crimes is painstakingly prolonged. So what can we still learn from a film that will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year, and the true events it is based on?
There are few more poignant images of segregation in the modern world than separate water fountains, an image Parker deploys as the first visual shot of the film. The tranquillity of the coexisting fountains is interrupted only a minute later by the shot of a burning building. We learn quickly that Defoe and Hackman are the agents assigned to investigate the missing persons’ case of the two white men and one black man. Both are liberal detectives, but it is clear that they will not see eye to eye. Conflict manifests in this film not only in the scenes of racially motivated violence but also in the discord between Defoe and Hackman. It is a traditional cinematic pairing, with Dafoe as the younger idealist and Hackman delivering a captivating performance as the experienced detective, who is adept at handling the townsfolk of the fictional Jessop. Frances McDormand too is admirably restrained- she has a kind soul and is quite clearly not racist, and yet made the mistake of marrying one.
Everyone assures the FBI agents that the two boys will be fine, without even acknowledging the presence of the third, “coloured” boy. The film is littered with a raw brutality, in ways we are regrettably familiar with today. The soundtrack in the early scenes of the film is calmer; this is a world that is not at all troubled by any hatred. The violent acts are merely the percussion punctuating such anger that is commonplace in America. It is the introduction of the FBI agents that is the interruption, as they attempt to impose the law on a town that will uphold its status quo with fatal consequences. As tensions heighten, so does the presence of the beating drums.
Parker’s film is careful to highlight how such ignorance extends beyond matters of race. Following certain events we are forced to consider, if these men can’t treat their wives right, how on earth can they know how to treat strangers? In one particularly harrowing scene, the soundtrack of a woman singing for Jesus muffles the on screen cries of churchgoers. Do not be fooled, this is a film with a distinct lack of compassion. The climax of the percussion in the soundtrack not only muffles, but completely renders mute, the confessions of McDormand at a crucial point in the narrative.
Mississippi Burning focuses through the lens of what race politics meant to white people. The film avoids certain events, such as Martin Luther King Jr. visiting Philadelphia a month after the boys disappeared and declaring: “This is a terrible town. The worst I’ve seen.” Furthermore, we see little of the trial once it reaches the courtroom. As with many films based on historical events, there is much to scrutinise over its factual accuracy. With minimal gloss and Hollywood hyperbole, Mississippi Burning demands the attention of those wishing to avoid the complexity of race relations, especially in Southern America.
We are looking at this film with 30 years more perspective on the politics of race relations. The figures that terrorise our protagonists are not out of place today: the shots of burning crosses, Klan rallies. Arguably, such demonstrations of hatred are making a violent resurgence. It was only last summer that the President of America chose not to denounce the actions of Nazis, until the backlash on his administration forced him to do so. In one scene a Mississippian tells Hackman and Defoe “people got the wrong idea about the South.” This same man explains that the “white culture” and “coloured culture” are separate, and that this is the way it has been and always will be. I fear we still have a long way to go before this opinion disappears, and Mississippi Burning delivers an unflinching reminder of the affect racial tensions have on society.