A Movie with Eyes on the Wrong Prize: “Mississippi Burning”

A Movie with Eyes on the Wrong Prize: “Mississippi Burning”

By Julian Bond

Vol. 10, No. 6, 1988, pp. 22-23

The new movie “Mississippi Burning” is the worst example of the genre called docudrama: there is no documentation and very little drama. Instead, filmgoers see “Rambo Meets the Ku Klux Klan” as cardboard characters parade through a small Mississippi town in 1964.

The filmmakers are quick to let the audience know their effort is a dramatization, based on the FBI investigation into the disappearance and deaths of Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney outside Philadelphia, Miss., in June 1964.

But the picture of the FBI, the civil rights movement, and white Southerners which emerges places “Mississippi Burning” as close to Freedom Summer as Lillian Smith’s

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Strange Fruit is to a basket of avocados.

No one emerges whole from this film.

The FBI, which hardly endeared itself to movement activists, is shown committing crimes beyond the imagination of its worse critics.

The civil rights workers–look-a-likes for Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney–appear only long enough to be murdered in the first five minutes. The rest of the film is given over to cardboard caricatures of dark-suited, buttoned-up federal agents and loutish Klansmen, punctuated with enough burnings, beatings, and bombings to have destroyed a town of Philadelphia’s size.

The Klan members are ignorant lumps and the FBI agents slow-witted, if well-meaning, fools. The former confound the latter by dumping a black beating victim from a speeding car in the town square at high noon.

When regular police techniques and massive searches fail to dent the wall of white silence erected by the trio’s murders, the FBI resorts to two kidnappings, a faked lynching, a clumsy seduction, and–most incredible of all–a threatened castration of the town’s kidnapped mayor by a black FBI agent. There were, of course, no black FBI agents in 1964. In truth, the FBI bought information about the murders for $30,000 from an informant.

Mississippi was at war in 1964. The one thousand mostly white summer volunteers who joined the permanent staffs of SNCC, CORE, and SCLC in voter registration and Freedom Schools across the state poised a real challenge to the white supremacists, who responded with arson and murder. Eighty civil rights workers were assaulted; over a thousand were jailed. Several unidentified black bodies were found in the search for Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney; one was wearing a CORE tee-shirt.

The FBI was stiff-necked and most often allied with local lawmen. The agents did announce their presence through their uniformed suits and shoes and their Northern ways and seemed more interested in watching the law being broken than seeing it enforced. Their investigations centered on political thought, not the denial of civil rights.

But “Mississippi Burning” takes that frightening summer and makes it surreal and unbelievable.

And it invites the movie audience to believe that the FBI cared enough about the missing trio to use the Klan’s tactics against the Klan, and that the summer’s heroes were dressed in blue serge, not blue jeans.

The true lesson of Freedom Summer is told in the stories of the volunteers and the young, full-time civil rights professionals and the nameless Mississippians who housed and sheltered them, took beatings and blows for them. Nearly all the volunteers were white, and nearly all their hosts were black, but some few white Mississippians stood up, too. “Mississippi Burning” cheapens them all. Instead of dramatizing the real heroics of a critical time in American history, it is a made-up story with made-up people about a time and place which never existed.

There are those who argue that movies like “Mississippi Burning,” as awful as they are, are preferable in an age in which most Americans absorb history from small and large screens.

That is precisely this movie’s main affront.

It enters a popular culture where 1964 is as remote as 1776 and where lessons are learned from flickering film instead of the fumed page or the award-winning documentary. It becomes the history it parodies; a friend’s date told me excitedly, “Billy says these things really happened back then.”

She is thirty-five.

One of “Mississippi Burning’s” stars is already being touted for an Oscar nomination; the FBI agent he portrays is a former Mississippi sheriff, a good-old-boy with a red-blooded American heart. His desire to catch the killers overrides his respect for the law. The makers of Mississippi Burning” let their desire for a big box office and Oscars overcome respect for history. They had their eyes on the wrong prize.

Julian Bond, currently visiting professor in history and politics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Penn., is a member of the Southern Regional Council.