The plot of Alan Parker’s 1988 film, Mississippi Burning, is drawn from the 1964 disappearance of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were white northerners, and James Chaney, a black native of Meridian, Mississippi. The three activists were working to register African American voters in Meridian as part of the Freedom Summer project. On the night of 16–17 June, members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a church in Longdale, where activists planned to open a freedom school. On 21 June Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney drove to see the burned-out church but disappeared outside Philadelphia on their way back to Meridian. FBI agents began investigating the disappearances the next day. On 4 August the bodies of the three men were found buried in an earthen dam.
In Mississippi Burning, Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe portray fictional FBI agents who set out to find the murderers of the three activists. After realizing that the local people will not cooperate with the investigation—the whites apathetic and the blacks scared—the agents use blackmail and intimidation to persuade some KKK members to confess their involvement and implicate others. Although suspenseful and powerful in the film, these extralegal measures, including a scene in which a fictional black FBI agent holds a knife to a white man, were fabrications. Intimidation was minimally used in the actual investigation.
Hackman’s and Dafoe’s characters have opposite personalities and ideologies but eventually develop a friendship and mutual respect for each other. Various other characters make brief appearances that add a bit of romance, intrigue, and turmoil to the story—the villainous deputy (Brad Dourif), his decent yet misguided wife (Frances McDormand), and a brave black boy who endures much racism and emotional harm (Darius McCrary). These characters are loosely based on real people but are included primarily to give depth to the film.
Mississippi Burning hit theaters in December 1988 and grossed more than $34.6 million during its run. It received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film won an Oscar for Best Cinematography. However, historians and civil rights groups criticized the movie, primarily on the grounds that it portrayed African Americans as passive bystanders while the white FBI agents swooped in and saved the day. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Vernon Jarrett commented, “The film treats some of the most heroic people in black history as mere props in a morality play.” Parker countered that white FBI agents had to be the heroes in the film to secure box-office popularity in 1988.
- Harvey Fireside, The “Mississippi Burning” Civil Rights Murder Conspiracy Trial: A Headline Court Case (2002)
- Internet Movie Database website, www.imdb.com
- Jerry Mitchell, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (24 November 2014)
- Robert Brent Toplin, History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (1996)