A Perversion of the Past [MISSISSIPPI BURNING]


From the Chicago Reader (December 16, 1988). — J.R.


no stars (Worthless)

Directed by Alan Parker

Written by Chris Gerolmo

With Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, and Gailard Sartain.

This whole country is full of lies. — Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”

The time in my youth when I was most physically afraid was a period of six weeks, during the summer of 1961, when I was 18. I was attending an interracial, coed camp at Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee — the place where the Montgomery bus boycott, the proper beginning of the civil rights movement, was planned by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks in the mid-50s. As a white native of Alabama, I had never before experienced the everyday dangers faced by southern blacks, much less those faced by activists who participated in Freedom Rides and similar demonstrations. But that summer, my coed camp was beset by people armed with rocks and guns.

I believe that we were the first group of people who ever sang an old hymn called “We Shall Overcome” as a civil rights anthem, thanks to the efforts of the camp’s musical director, Guy Carawan. But the songs, powerful as they were, weren’t the main thing that kept us together; it was the fear of dying. When a local white cracker turned up on the grounds and fired a shotgun at campers who were swimming in a lake; or, on a drive back from Chattanooga, when a group of kids threw bricks and bottles at our cars; or when a midnight raid by several carloads of local rednecks who were ready to beat us up (or worse) was called off only because of a rainstorm, the question that always came up was whom we could turn to in a pinch for protection.

The answer was no one. Certainly not the local police or the FBI, as I quickly learned from the more experienced campers and counselors; the most we could expect from them was that they’d look the other way — or laugh in our faces. (I had already been warned by several white friends in Alabama that the FBI considered Highlander a Communist training school, which meant that if I went there I’d never be able to get a job in government — or so they claimed.) In fact, the best that one could hope for in a tight situation in the deep south was the presence of a New York Times reporter, and this was only because a white racist was less likely to bash in your skull if he thought it might get written up in a big Yankee paper.

Three summers after my stay at Highlander, three activists working to register black voters were killed by the Ku Klux Klan. With the complicity of a local sheriff and deputy, James Chaney, who was black, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were white, were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Luckily, I was safe at home that summer; but my uncle, Arthur Lelyveld, a rabbi from Cleveland involved in the civil rights struggle, was bashed in the head with a piece of heavy pipe in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a month later; and he delivered Goodman’s funeral eulogy two months after that, when the bodies were finally found by the FBI. (His son Joseph — a New York Times reporter, as it happens — wound up interviewing former deputy Cecil Ray Price, who participated in the coverups, in 1977.) My own limited civil rights activities in Tennessee and Alabama never took me to Mississippi, an even more fearful place. As Nina Simone put it in her song, “Alabama’s got me so upset, / Tennessee made me lose my rest, / But everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.”

Given this background, it would be foolish to claim that I can approach Mississippi Burning, which deals with those three killings, impartially. But it would be equally foolish to claim that the movie elicits impartiality from anyone, or that impartiality of any kind informs its contents. It is, after all, a movie by Alan Parker, a stylish English director who got his start in TV commercials, and whose most popular features (Midnight Express, Fame, Shoot the Moon, Pink Floyd — The Wall, and Angel Heart) all reek of advertising’s overheated style, where, regardless of truth or meaning, anything goes if it produces the desired hyped-up effect.

It’s emblematic of the entire approach of Parker and screenwriter Chris Gerolmo that the movie focuses almost exclusively on the investigation of the murders by two FBI agents, fictional characters named Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Anderson (Gene Hackman), and that they’re the only good guys in sight. Much of the drama, in fact, concentrates on the conflict between them: prim, moralistic, and zealous Ward, who antagonizes the local white community, and loose, ambling Anderson, who prefers to mingle with the locals, objecting that Ward’s blunt methods might attract the northern press. Both are represented as moral spokesmen without a trace of prejudice — unlike every other white person in town — although the movie clearly favors Anderson’s methods over Ward’s. Broadly speaking, their positions might be called federal (Ward) and local (Anderson) ways of handling civil rights problems in the south, although needless to say the blacks themselves are given no voice at all in the debate; they’re essentially treated like children, and emotionally speaking Ward and Anderson are the parents who have to decide what’s best for them.

For most of its history, including the 60s, the FBI has been a racist organization. This isn’t simply a matter of hearsay or folk wisdom; it’s amply demonstrated in such places as I.F. Stone’s 1961 article, “The Negro, the FBI and Police Brutality,” James Farmer’s Lay Bare the Heart, and any Martin Luther King biography you care to pick. (The protracted persecution of King by J. Edgar Hoover is now part of the public record.) It’s even come to light recently, when a black FBI agent brought charges of racial harassment against his colleagues. In 1964, of course, there was no such thing as a black FBI agent anywhere in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the central narrative premise of Mississippi Burning sets up the FBI as the sole heroic defender of the victims of southern racism in 1964, which is more than a little disgusting. Embracing the premise unconditionally — unless one counts a single fleeting remark from a redneck, to a journalist, that “J. Edgar Hoover said Martin Luther King was a Communist,” which the film neither confirms nor privileges — the film tampers more than a little with historical facts: it subverts the history of the civil rights movement itself.

It’s true that the FBI did conduct a detailed and extensive investigation, file name “Mississippi Burning,” in the summer of 1964, before the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were finally found under more than ten tons of earth. But a look at the context of this investigation, which the movie can’t be bothered with, tells us a lot more. Two of the three missing civil rights workers came from well-to-do white families. After the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy the FBI’s prestige was conceivably at an all-time low; Lyndon Johnson had signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law on the same day that Hoover finally announced his intention to open an FBI office in Jackson, Mississippi; and apparently Johnson had to twist Hoover’s arm in the bargain. (As I.F. Stone wrote in 1961, “Mr. Hoover has made it clear that the FBI acts in civil rights cases only because ordered to.”)

“1964 . . . Not Forgotten” is the final message of the movie — the words appear on the chipped, defaced tombstone of one of the slain activists — but it’s hard to forget something that isn’t known in the first place, much less remembered. The movie purports to re-create the past and to tell us what it meant, but the ignorance of Mississippi Burning is so studied that it only can be accounted for as a bulwark against knowledge, a denial of history for the sake of striking a glib and simple and easily digestible attitude against injustice.

It’s not enough to counter that any Hollywood movie entails a certain amount of distortion. When Phil Karlson brought his actors and camera crew to Alabama in the 50s to shoot his low-budget “exploitation” docudrama The Phenix City Story (1955), which dealt with crime and racism in a similarly corrupt and terrorized community, he showed an attentiveness to the sound and look of his milieu, and the facts of his story, that even his own taste for lurid melodrama didn’t falsify. Although it’s shot on location in Mississippi and Alabama, Mississippi Burning doesn’t try for even a fraction of the same authenticity; an undistorted depiction couldn’t be further from its agenda. Parker’s Midnight Express contrived to horrify audiences with the experience of an American teenager in a Turkish prison, while blithely ignoring what happened to Turks in the same place. Mississippi Burning shows a comparable indifference to the inhabitants and everyday life of its small southern town.

The film’s two major characters are fictional, but both are analogous to real agents who worked on “Mississippi Burning” in 1964. Anderson is partially based on John Proctor, an agent from Alabama who worked in the north before he was assigned to Meridian, Mississippi, and who was friendly with two of the conspirators, Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Cecil Price. But the differences between the real agent and the character are glaring. In the film, Anderson is a Mississippian who has worked both in the north and as a sheriff in Mississippi; he is untarnished by his friendly relations with the murderous villains. Joseph Sullivan — Proctor’s superior, and the partial model for Ward (Dafoe) — hailed from the midwest. In their recent book We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi, Seth Cagin and Philip Dray describe him as follows: “A rugged six-two and known for his thoroughness and efficiency, Sullivan was the very personification of the qualities that epitomized the public image of Hoover’s FBI.”

Given the script that they have to work with, Dafoe and Hackman can’t be blamed if their characters come across as dedicated liberals surrounded by evil rednecks. The only exception to this polarity is the deputy’s wife (Frances McDormand), with whom Anderson flirts until she reveals the location of the activists’ bodies. (In real life, the location of the bodies was found by bribing an undisclosed Neshoba citizen with $30,000.) But properly speaking, Ward, Anderson, and the deputy’s wife are the only figures with any density in the plot. The nameless murder victims, seen only in the opening sequence, are never allowed to exist as characters, and the local blacks — noble, suffering icons without any depth or personality — hardly fare better.

In fact, Ward and Anderson are practically the only people in the movie, apart from a barber or two, who are ever shown working. Their 98 coworkers are mainly shown shuffling papers; the sheriff (Gailard Sartain), deputy, and other local racists seem to devote their hours exclusively to holding Klan or White Citizens’ Council meetings, firebombing black homes and churches, and beating up blacks. (Even more improbably, despite placing the local blacks throughout the film in small, ramshackle, easy-to-burn houses and churches, Parker sets a black funeral near the end in a palatial sanctuary that’s the film’s biggest and most expensive interior — a good example of his preference for splashy effect over logic or continuity.)

I wouldn’t expect a docudrama of this sort to deal with the literal truth. Even Parker admits in his production notes that “Our film cannot be the definitive film of the black Civil Rights struggle. Our heroes are still white. And in truth, the film would probably never have been made if they weren’t. This is a reflection of our society not the Film Industry.” But Parker has stuck so exclusively to his white heroes that he has drained all complexity out of everyone else, blacks and racists alike, and he passes over many real-life details that would have made even his simple melodramatic approach stronger.

Cagin and Dray cite five local whites in Philadelphia, Mississippi, who stood against the community’s conspiracy of silence, “all of whom were threatened and ostracized” and none of whom seems to bear any resemblance to the deputy’s wife in the movie. Apparently, Parker and Gerolmo don’t want to complicate their scenario with such people, or any other southern whites who showed courage, such as James W. Silver (whose remarkable and chilling Mississippi: The Closed Society was published the same year) or William Bradford Huie, a Philadelphia journalist who compared the race murders in Mississippi and Alabama with those of Auschwitz. They could have gotten a lot of mileage out of Buford Pusey, one of the local white dissidents, who joined the Mississippi NAACP in 1946 at age 21 because he thought that black World War II veterans had a right to vote, challenged the local newspaper editor (who repeatedly called him a Communist) to a duel in the late 50s, and as a consequence was himself denied the right to vote. (He also proved to be one of the few locals who assisted the FBI.)

Alternatively, if Parker and Gerolmo didn’t want to deal with local eccentrics — which would have complicated their premise that the community consisted entirely of ignorant, bigoted, and interchangeable poor white trash — they could have dealt with certain aspects of the FBI investigation that are even more horrifying than anything they show. To cite Cagin and Dray again: “To the horror and disgust of southern blacks and movement people, several black corpses were found in Mississippi by authorities searching for Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney. They were the routine victims of the Mississippi police/Klan juggernaut — found and identified this particular summer only as an unintended consequence of the national attention drawn to the state.”

But fires are more photogenic than decomposing corpses. Since more than 20 black churches were firebombed in Mississippi that summer, Mississippi Burning opts for an endless spectacle of fires and beatings instead, taking care not to individuate too many of the black victims for fear of alienating “our society” (as opposed to the “Film Industry”). And what about the civil rights movement? What about the visits of King, James Farmer, John Lewis, Dick Gregory, relatives of the slain victims, and countless others to that part of Mississippi while the investigations were taking place? The movie can’t begin to acknowledge any of these people as presences or voices, because, in terms of its own deranged emotional/ideological agenda, the FBI is the civil rights movement.

Parker’s basic procedure is to stage as many dramatic confrontations as possible — between Ward and Anderson, between either or both of them and the townspeople, between the Klan and the blacks, or between an imaginary black FBI agent (Badja Djola) and the racist mayor (R. Lee Ermey) — without regard for the basic historical facts. One of the first confrontations between Ward and Anderson occurs when they enter a luncheonette and Ward insists on joining the black men seated at a segregated counter (all of whom fearfully refuse to speak to him) despite Anderson’s objections that this will cause an unnecessary commotion.

In order to stage such a scene, the filmmakers had to ignore the fact that, thanks to jim crow laws, no such seating arrangement was possible in Mississippi in 1964, even after the signing of the civil rights bill. Blacks were simply not allowed as customers in white restaurants; at best they could order take-out food from the back of some establishments, waiting outside near the kitchen. The film’s indifference to the truth of the situation is indicative of where its real interest lies: with the good or evil intentions of whites, not with the everyday experiences of blacks.

But the movie’s distortions go even further than that. Seth Cagin’s article about the film in the December Vogue suggests that the movie’s defamation (through neglect) of the civil rights movement is matched by its cockeyed distortion of the FBI’s methods. An honest depiction might have pointed out, for instance, that their infiltration of the Klan was facilitated by agents who were themselves southern segregationists. But Parker’s integrationist FBI, which even includes a couple of black agents whimsically known as Bird and Monk, opts instead for abduction and threats of violence (which, Cagin argues, fits directly into the Klan’s cherished paranoid fantasies about the FBI).

This leads to one of the movie’s most ludicrous scenes, when agent Monk, initially garbed in a Klan outfit, abducts the mayor to extract information. Threatening him with a razor, Monk proceeds to tell the (true) story of Judge Edward Aaron (called Homer Wilkes in the film), a black man selected at random, who was castrated with a razor by a white Alabama Klansman in 1957. That the movie occasionally makes use of actual historical occurrences — such as the horrifying crime against Aaron — can’t really excuse its compulsion to use them to erect its own lurid fantasy scenarios.

I believe it was James Agee who remarked that some of the best art can grow out of moral simplification. It’s a point that has some merit, but I would defy anyone who knows or cares about the civil rights struggle in any way to find much merit or art in the pile-driver simplifications of Mississippi Burning or the feast for the self-righteous that it makes possible. Ward makes a fancy speech (written by Parker himself) near the end of the movie, after the mayor has hanged himself (another clumsy invention), that argues that even though he wasn’t a member of the Klan and didn’t participate in the killings, the mayor is guilty — “maybe we all are” — because he stood by and allowed the murders and cover-ups to happen.

If Ward has a point, it’s one that could also be made about this movie. The extravagant praise that’s already been heaped on it by several national critics is apparently motivated by the sentiment that any treatment of the subject that is unsympathetic to the Klan has got to be an important step forward for mankind, regardless of how much obfuscation is perpetrated. Or perhaps some of these critics are too far removed from the historical facts to realize just how far the movie’s distortions go.

But whether or not they realize what they’re endorsing, critics and other spectators who celebrate this perversion of the past, this racism posing as humanism, this murder and cover-up of the historical record, this insult to the memory and legacy of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, are as guilty in a way as Parker and Gerolmo, because they stand by and allow it to happen. Or maybe, better yet, we’re all guilty — a nifty little formula that lets everyone off the hook.

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