Mississippi Burning: Reconstructing Fear


Every year, Hollywood releases at least one or two mainstream movies that become controversial topics in their own right and get discussed/analysed/taken apart by fans and media. 1988 had Mississippi Burning. The film was a fictionalized account of the FBI investigation in the murder of three civil rights activists in the state of Mississippi in 1964.

Three activists, including two white and one black man, go missing one night. Special Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman in an Oscar-nominated role) arrive to investigate the whole affair and the movie takes on from there. It was criticised for its fictionalization of history and also for the fact that there wasn’t a single central black character. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., had this to say about the film:

“How long will we have to wait before Hollywood finds the courage and the integrity to tell the stories of some of the many thousands of black men, women and children who put their lives on the line for equality?”

Truth be told, whitewashing, white saviour, and the white man’s burden are themes that aren’t alien to Hollywood and controversy, but for a person like me who didn’t know about the background of the film, nor the fact that it was, so to say, loosely based on a true story (I thought it was fiction), it wasn’t an issue when I watched it. Mind you, I came to know about all this after I read about the film, post-watching it, on Wikipedia. And indeed, if you don’t consider those factors, this is a really good film. Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Alan Parker) and Best Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand), it is rated 7.8/10 on IMDb and 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert, the gold standard of film critics, declared it “The best film of 1988” and also later ranked it the 8th best film of the 1980s. These positive bits about the movie are what I want to talk about today.

Right from when the film opens, there is an air of fear permeating throughout it. As we go deeper, the appalling conditions of the black people in the KKK-dominated South becomes clear. Standout shocking scenes include one of a black man being hanged on a tree after his home is burnt and another of dead livestock, roasted-alive. A black guy is beaten mercilessly by Klan members even after he refuses to talk with the Dafoe character. Frances McDormand as Mrs. Pell, wife of a racist cop, gives a performance that shows how petrified even non-racist whites were in those times. This is the real triumph of the film, showing in each reel the terror experienced by the victims and the impunity with which the perpetrators carried on, secure in the knowledge that the crooked system was with them. For people of this generation who never lived through those times, it is a window into how bad things were. The film also has a particular resonance with the “Black Lives Matter” movement today, as police brutality/complicity contributed to the events that happened back then, as they do to this day.

At its core, this is a buddy cop thriller – but the efforts of the cast and crew, plus the story, take it from decent to a great flick. Hackman single-handedly standing up to Klan members in a pub is a notable sequence. If only there had also been a black person doing so, the controversy could very well have been avoided. Regardless, it’s a recommended watch.

Mississippi Burning is rated R.

I will keep contributing here on Geekritique about TV shows, books and movies. You are encouraged to visit my blog musingsite.

Thanks for reading. Share your views and thoughts on the film in the comments section.

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6 thoughts on “Mississippi Burning: Reconstructing Fear

  1. “Truth be told, whitewash and white saviour/white man’s burden are themes that aren’t alien to Hollywood…”

    Neither are tropes like the ‘magical negro’ or the ‘evil white guy’ or the ‘hot Latin dude’. We can nitpick every movie out there for its themes and tropes until we are blue in the face. I think picking up on these things says more about the person watching the film than the film itself.

    “If only there had also been a black person doing so, the controversy could very well have been avoided.”

    No it wouldn’t have. There are people out there who look for controversy like a dying man in the desert looks for water. It’s their bread and butter.

    The film was written by a white man, directed by a white man and concentrates on the white men assigned to the case. No one would look at the movie Barbershop, written by a black man, directed by a black man and concentrating on the lives of certain black men and ask why there were no white people represented in the movie.

    Stories are written from peoples memories. From the knowledge they have acquired either through life or through research. Sometimes people can fully grasp the culture of another and write well about it, sometimes they cannot. Some writers would rather not even try because they know they cannot adequately portray a culture or a person from that culture, even if they must still allude to it as part of the story.

    Most movies are written focusing on a small group of players. Sometimes those players are very diverse, sometimes they are not – which mimics real life. I think we do a great disservice to nitpick a film because it doesn’t meet up to our standard of diversity, which seems to be a great American pastime nowadays. As a writer of your own stories I’m sure you understand that sometimes we concentrate on certain people or cultures while other times, well, not so much.

    I don’t quite know what to make of your post. Is it a review? A critique? If a critique, then of what? The actors? The story? The lack of black people?

    I mean no disrespect, but only seek conversation and understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

    • First of all, thanks for sharing your opinion. I wasn’t critiquing or criticizing the film, per se. Neither was this a review. This was just an appreciation of the film, how it reconstructed the fear of that age. Also, I do accept that there are people who would find faults with anything under the sun, maybe even God himself.
      My point, as I mentioned in the post, was that when I watched the movie I could feel the way the atmosphere would have been in those times in America. You see, we have had many communally charged incidents in India over the years so despite never having been to the US, I could almost feel the fear and tension that there was in ’64,and that is a credit to the film’s cast and crew.
      I mentioned the criticism and the flak that the movie faced because I wanted to give a background to the time the movie came out, pure and simple. I do that with every post as I feel giving a bit of info to the reader, who may or may not be familiar with the subject matter, draws him/her into the post. I enjoyed the movie a lot, and said as much.
      Plus, this film faced whatever criticism it did some 28 years back, on a subject 52 years old. So I don’t think that this “pastime” is new.
      I do accept that every writer has his own characters to explore, and I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with that. S/he is creating fiction, and s/he has every right to do as s/he pleases.
      Thank you once again for the insights. I hope I made myself clear.

      Have a great week ahead. Happy blogging. God bless.🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah. Didn’t realize it was written from the perspective of a non-American. In that case it’s quite a testament to the film if out can convey that sense of fear, which was very real back during that time. From what hear India is experiencing some pretty hefty social issues right now, especially for men. Of course I am getting my info second hand through one of our business partners.

        I appreciate your acceptance of my reply. I know criticism is nothing new, but sometimes it seems like the US is run by those who only know how to criticize but can never offer solutions.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I only wanted to appreciate, criticism wasn’t even a thought for me. Happy to have been able to explain myself clearly.
        India is a young democracy and we do have our share of problems. But our strong roots and vibrant society mean we’ll always tide through whatever we come up against.
        Thanks again for reading and sharing your opinion. God bless.🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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