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 date(s)
  • 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 real-life 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 real-life 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 real 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.

It is very hard for the two to work in the town, as the local sheriff's office is linked to a major branch of the Ku Klux Klan, and the agents cannot talk to the local black community, 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 and the deputy sheriff, Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif), realizes that his wife gave their locations to Anderson, and he assaults her. 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 as yet untried approach.

The new tactics begin when the mayor is abducted. He is taken to a remote shack and left on his own with a black man (played by Badja Djola) wearing a rudimentary mask, similar to those used by KKK members in the film. Relating a story of how a young black man was castrated by the KKK, he implies that the mayor will likewise be mutilated unless he talks, by wielding a razor blade while relating the tale. In reality, the abductor is an FBI operative specially flown in to intimidate the mayor. The mayor gives the operative a comprehensive description of the killings, including the names of those involved; although not admissible in court, this information proves invaluable.

Anderson uses the new information to send fake invitations to the involved KKK parties, who turn up for a 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 of the outfit, 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 then 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. Anderson slips in the place of the barber allowing him to ensure that Pell stays still while Anderson threatens him, nicking him with the razor. Anderson then brutally beats Pell, both for his role in the murders and his assault of his wife. Ward, waiting outside and unable to bear the ongoing beating, attempts to go in; he is stopped by the other FBI men Anderson has called in, and he silently remembers his pledge to do things Anderson's way. Pell is left spinning in a barber's chair, unconscious, as Anderson leaves.

A nervous Lester Cowens is at home when his window is shot out. On the lawn is a burning cross. 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 the thugs to the sound of gunshots. Out of sight, the abductors stop running away and remove their masks to reveal that they are also FBI agents. The ruse works. Cowens, believing his life is in danger because his KKK co-conspirators think that he will talk, does just that. The FBI now has evidence admissible in court and can prosecute the culprits. They charge them with civil rights violations to ensure that they will be tried at the federal level; four of them had previously been convicted in a state court of firebombing a black man's home, only to receive 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 with anything, hangs himself. Pell's wife returns to her home, which has been completely ransacked. She resolves to stay and rebuild her life, free of her wicked husband.

The film concludes with a Sunday morning service on the site of a destroyed house of worship, attended by both white and black churchgoers singing in unison. Ward addresses Anderson as "Rupert" for the first time.


Historical background[edit]

Mississippi Burning was based on the historical events surrounding the murders of three Mississippi civil rights workers. The story was first turned into a television docudrama titled Attack on Terror: The FBI vs. the Ku Klux Klan (1975), which depicts many of the same events as the film.

Neither production gives the real names of the murderers, due to legal considerations, and Mississippi Burning does not mention the victims[1] (who are referred to as "the Boys") by name in the film. In the film credits they are simply 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 real informant, known in history 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 Colombo crime family contract killer Gregory S. Scarpa Jr., the cinematic version may have come closer to the truth than the official FBI story out of Washington, D.C. Scarpa's story has been supported in several news accounts by unnamed FBI agents purported to have 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 his father, Gregory Scarpa Sr., capo of the Colombo crime family and Top Echelon 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 himself, he and an FBI helper kidnapped a local appliance salesman and Ku Klux Klan 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 he 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. Events similar to Scarpa Jr.'s story are reenacted in the film. The KKK member finally confessed to the location of the bodies, Scarpa Jr. said.[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 Ku Klux Klan, and the 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 bodies was highway patrolman Maynard King, who gave the information willingly to FBI agent Joseph Sullivan.[2] The similarity between Scarpa's account and the film may be best explained by the fact that Scarpa's testimony was recorded some years after the film was released. Both the Justice Department and the FBI have officially declined to comment on any role Gregory Scarpa Sr. may have played in the MIBURN. In Cartha DeLoach's account of the MIBURN case in his memoir, Hoover's FBI, he does not mention Scarpa. It does say that a squad of COINTELPRO agents were sent to interview members of the Ku Klux Klan and that "many of them were big, bruising men, highly trained in the tactics of interrogation."[citation needed]

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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