Mississippi Burning

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Mississippi Burning
Mississippi Burning.jpg
Theatrical poster by Bill Gold
Directed by Alan Parker
Produced by Frederick Zollo
Robert F. Colesberry
Written by Chris Gerolmo
Starring Gene Hackman
Willem Dafoe
Frances McDormand
Brad Dourif
R. Lee Ermey
Music by Trevor Jones
Cinematography Peter Biziou
Edited by Gerry Hambling
Distributed by Orion Pictures
Release dates
  • December 9, 1988 (1988-12-09)
Running time 128 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $15,000,000
Box office $34,603,943 (USA)

Mississippi Burning is a 1988 American thriller film directed by Alan Parker and written by Chris Gerolmo. It was loosely based on the FBI investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers in the U.S. state of Mississippi in 1964. The film focuses on two FBI agents (portrayed by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) who investigate the murders. Hackman's character (Agent Rupert Anderson) and Dafoe's character (Agent Alan Ward) are loosely based on the partnership of FBI agent John Proctor and agent Joseph Sullivan.

The film also features Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, and Gailard Sartain. It won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Hackman), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (McDormand), Best Director, Best Film Editing (Gerry Hambling), Best Sound and Best Picture.

It was filmed in a number of locations in central Mississippi and at one location in LaFayette, Alabama (town square scenes).


The story is loosely based on the murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. After the three are reported missing, two FBI agents are sent to investigate the incident in rural Jessup County, Mississippi (modeled after Neshoba County where the historic murders took place). The two agents take completely different approaches: Agent Alan Ward (Dafoe), a young liberal northerner, takes a direct approach to the investigation; Agent Rupert Anderson (Hackman), a former Mississippi sheriff who understands the intricacies of race relations in the South, takes a more subtle tack.

The two find it difficult to work in the town, as the local sheriff's office is linked to a major branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The agents cannot find members of the local black community who will talk with them, due to their fear of Klan retaliation. Slowly but steadily, relations between the FBI and the local Jessup County sheriff's office deteriorate, as do relations between Ward and Anderson. Things boil over when the bodies are found. The deputy sheriff, Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif), realizes that his wife (McDormand) told Anderson the location of the bodies, and he beats her in retaliation. When Anderson sees her in the hospital, he storms off to confront Pell but is stopped by Ward. After a violent fight and battle of wills, the two agree that they will work together to bring down the Jessup County branch of the Ku Klux Klan using Anderson's approach.

They arrange the abduction of the mayor, taking him to a remote shack. There he is left with a black man (played by Badja Djola) wearing a rudimentary mask, similar to those used by KKK members. Relating a story of how the KKK castrated a young black man, Djola implies that the mayor will likewise be mutilated unless he talks, as the masked man is wielding a razor blade while relating the tale. The abductor is an FBI operative flown in to intimidate the mayor. The mayor tells the operative a full description of the killings, including the names of those involved. Although his statement is not admissible in court, this information proves invaluable to the investigators.

Anderson uses the new information to send fake invitations to the identified KKK parties, who arrive for the meeting. They soon realize that it is a set up and leave without discussing the murders. The FBI, who are eavesdropping, home in on Lester Cowens, a junior member, as being particularly nervous and unable to stop talking. He is later picked up by the FBI and driven prominently around town to make it appear that he may be cooperating with them. He is dropped off in the black side of the segregated community to "think" about his position.

Anderson pays a visit to the barbershop, where Deputy Sheriff Pell is getting a shave with a straight razor. The attorney takes the place of the barber and threatens Pell, nicking him with the razor. Anderson brutally beats Pell, both for his role in the murders and his later assault of his wife. Ward, waiting outside and unable to bear the ongoing beating, tries to go in; he is stopped by other FBI men called in by Anderson and also remembers his commitment to do things Anderson's way.

Lester Cowens is at home when his window is shot out. He looks out to see a burning cross on the lawn. Cowens tries to flee in his truck but is caught by three hooded men, who begin to hang him. The FBI arrive, rescue Cowens, and chase away the thugs. Out of sight, the abductors remove their masks, revealing they are also FBI agents. The ruse works.

Cowens, believing that his KKK co-conspirators have threatened his life, talks to the FBI. This evidence is admissible in court and they can prosecute the culprits. They charge them with civil rights violations to gain prosecution at the federal level. States had done little to prosecute such crimes. Four of these KKK had been convicted to firebombing a black man's home, and were given five-year suspended sentences. Most are found guilty and receive sentences from three to ten years. Sheriff Stuckey is acquitted. The mayor, who was not charged, commits suicide by hanging.

Pell's wife returns to her home, which has been completely ransacked. She resolves to stay and rebuild her life, free of her cruel husband.

The film concludes with a Sunday morning service on the site of a destroyed church. Black and white churchgoers are singing together. Ward addresses Anderson as "Rupert" for the first time.


Historical background[edit]

Mississippi Burning was based on the historical events related to the murders of three Mississippi civil rights workers, the investigation into their disappearance, and the prosecution of suspects. A television docudrama, titled Attack on Terror: The FBI vs. the Ku Klux Klan (1975), depicts many of the same events as the film.

Neither production gives the real names of the murderers, due to legal considerations. Mississippi Burning does not name the victims[1] (who are referred to as "the Boys") in the film. In the film credits, they are identified as "Goatee", based on Michael Schwerner (played by Geoffrey Nauffts); "Passenger", based on Andrew Goodman (played by Rick Zieff); and "Black Passenger", based on James Chaney (played by Christopher White).

The film presents Clinton Pell's wife as the informant. However, the identity of the historic informant, known as "Mr. X.", was a closely held secret for 40 years. In the process of reopening the case, journalist Jerry Mitchell and teacher Barry Bradford discovered his real name.[2] The mysterious black associate of Rupert Anderson, who threatens to castrate the mayor while he is bound to the chair, is based on Colombo crime family capo and FBI informant Gregory Scarpa, Sr. The character "Frank Bailey" (played by Michael Rooker) is based on Alton Wayne Roberts, "Clayton Townley" (portrayed by Stephen Tobolowsky) is based on Samuel Bowers, and "Lester Cowens" (portrayed by Pruitt Taylor Vince) is based on Edgar Ray Killen.[citation needed]

According to the testimony of contract killer Gregory S. Scarpa Jr., the cinematic version may have presented accurate details in its portrayal of intimidation of the KKK. Scarpa's account has been supported in several news accounts by unnamed FBI agents who purportedly worked on the MIBURN case, as well as Scarpa's own FD-209 reports, which were released and made public after his death. Scarpa has said that his father, Gregory Scarpa Sr., capo of the Colombo crime family and top FBI informant, offered his services in the case to his FBI handler, Anthony Villano. He made a three-day trip to Mississippi where, posing as a member of the national Ku Klux Klan, he and an FBI helper kidnapped a local appliance salesman and KKK member whom the FBI viewed as a potential weak link in the case. They took the man to a remote location, tied him to a chair, and interrogated him. The first two times the suspect told the story, the agent and Scarpa believed the man was lying. On the third try, Scarpa pulled his gun on the suspect. "He said he took a gun and put it in the guy's mouth and said: For the last time, where are the bodies or I'll blow your head off", Scarpa testified. Scarpa Jr. said the KKK member finally confessed to the location of the bodies.[citation needed]

One such report, written in January 1966, states that Scarpa was later used as a "special" — the FBI term for a nonagent working for the Bureau, in the murder of Vernon Dahmer, the head of the NAACP office in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Dahmer's house was torched by the KKK. The 1966 memo states that Scarpa Sr. was sent to Hattiesburg to work on the case. However, evidence from journalist Jerry Mitchell and Illinois high school teacher Barry Bradford contradicts this account.

They claim the informant who revealed the location of the civil rights workers' bodies was highway patrolman Maynard King, who willingly told FBI agent Joseph Sullivan.[2]

Cartha "Deke" DeLoach's official version is: the FBI paid for its first big break in the case, which was the location of the bodies. In his memoirs, he describes the men only as "a minister and a member of the highway patrol". DeLoach does not say how the two men knew the three civil rights workers had been buried under twelve feet of dirt in an earthen dam on a large farm a few miles outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, but he did say the FBI paid $30,000 for the piece of crucial information.[3]

The statement made by "Mayor Tilman" to the FBI agents is paraphrased from a quote by U.S. Senator James Eastland, who reportedly said that when the three civil rights workers (Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman) went missing in Mississippi on June 21, 1964, "the incident is a hoax and there is no Ku Klux Klan in the state; the three have gone to Chicago", and that it was staged by the three young men to call attention to their cause. J. Edgar Hoover, who was being pressured by President Lyndon B. Johnson, was determined to break the case. He flew to Mississippi just before the first anniversary of the disappearance, which was officially regarded as a "kidnapping" to justify the FBI's involvement.[citation needed]

Critical reaction[edit]

Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 89% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 18 reviews, with an average score of 6.4/10.[4]

The film has been criticized by some for its fictionalization of history.[5][6][7] In an often-quoted review in Time Magazine, Jack E. White referred to the film as a "cinematic lynching of the truth".[8] Parker defended his film by reminding critics that it was a dramatization, not a documentary. It was also criticized for its portrayal of southern African Americans as passive victims, which also shapes the film's reenactment of the assassinations.[9] Margo Adler, who'd participated in the events as a volunteer with the voter registration drive, criticized the portrayal of multiple incidents and procedures in the film as being, "False. False. False", and related what actually happened.[10]




Wisconsin v. Mitchell[edit]

The film itself shaped history when, on October 7, 1989, a group of African Americans became enraged after drinking and watching the film, particularly the scene in which a white man beat a young black boy who was praying, and one of the group incited the others to beat up a passing 14-year-old white boy based on his skin color. The ensuing court case Wisconsin v. Mitchell (1993) was not only one of the few high-profile cases about a hate crime perpetrated by African Americans against whites but also led to a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court ruling that a state may consider whether a crime was committed or initially considered due to an intended victim's status in a protected class. The case became thereby an important precedent pertaining to First Amendment free speech arguments for hate crime legislation.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b "Barry Bradford and The Reopening Of Mississippi Burning Case | Speaking For A Change". Barrybradford.com. Retrieved 2013-11-27. 
  2. ^ a b Jerry Mitchell, Clarion Ledger. "Mr. X: 'Unsung Hero' In Slaying Of 3 Men". Internet Archive. Retrieved 2012-03-30. 
  3. ^ Cartha D. Deloach (June 25, 1995). Hoover’s F. B. I.: The Inside Story by Hoover’s Trusted Lieutenant (First ed.). Regnery Publishing, Inc. ISBN 978-0895264794. 
  4. ^ "Mississippi Burning". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved January 9, 2013. 
  5. ^ Toplin, Robert Brent (1996). History by Hollywood: the use and abuse of the American past. University of Illinois Press. pp. 26–27. ISBN 0-252-06536-0. 
  6. ^ Zinn, Howard (1990). Passionate declarations: essays on war and justice. Harper Collins. pp. 249–251. ISBN 0-06-055767-2. 
  7. ^ Zinn, Howard. "Federal Bureau of Intimidation". History is a Weapon. Retrieved 2011-03-12. 
  8. ^ White, Jack E. (January 9, 1989). "Show Business: Just Another Mississippi Whitewash". Time Magazine.  White's review is quoted in Roman, James (2009). Bigger Than Blockbusters: Movies That Defined America. ABC-CLIO. p. 274. ISBN 9780313087400. 
  9. ^ "Speaking For A Change | American History Speaker/Scholar". Barrybradford.com. 2013-10-17. Retrieved 2013-11-27. 
  10. ^ Margo Adler (June 23, 2014). "50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer (1964): Freedom Summer Oral Histories". The Brian Lehrer Show. 
  11. ^ "Berlinale: 1989 Prize Winners". berlinale.de. Retrieved 2011-03-12. 
  12. ^ "The 61st Academy Awards (1989) Nominees and Winners". Oscars.org. Retrieved 2013-11-27. 
  13. ^ "Awards". IMDb.com. Retrieved 2013-11-27. 

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