Starring: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe
Running time: 128 minutes
Rated: R for violence, gore, alcohol, smoking, profanity and intense scenes.
In June of 1964, three civil rights workers, two white and one black, went missing in Mississippi. Later found murdered and buried in an earthen dam, the case captured national attention and sparked a massive FBI investigation.
Almost 25 years later, “Mississippi Burning” recounted a fictionalized version of the events following the murders. And its seems like the best time to watch this movie following recent events and the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday earlier this week.
In the 1988 film, FBI agents Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) are dispatched to the fictional Jessup County, Miss., following the disappearances of the young civil rights workers. Their arrival is immediately met with contempt from the local law enforcement agencies, who mockingly referred to the FBI as the “Federal Bureau of Integration.”
Though both are dedicated to finding the perpetrators, the two agents constantly clash over investigation tactics and bureau procedure. Anderson, a Mississippi native, has a gung-ho attitude and questionable opinion of how to get the job done. Ward is a civil rights true believer who was shot in the shoulder while protecting activist James Meredith.
Both FBI agents suspect the local police force and Klu Klux Klan members of murder, but disagree on how to pursue them. Anderson wants to keep the FBI presence out the town small and frequently confronts the suspects, even assaulting them in one case. But he also quietly tries to convince the wife of one of the police officers to testify against him.
In contrast, Ward faithfully follows bureau procedures, eventually calling in hundreds of agents and members of the military to search every inch of the town and the swamps surrounding it, effectively turning the case into a media frenzy.
As the FBI presence grows, so does tensions between segregationists, civil rights workers and the local black population. Klan members burn down churches, assault and lynch black community members and shoot at the investigators. Local African-Americans refuse to cooperate with the FBI because they are scared for their own safety.
Eventually the particulars of the case come to light and the agents achieve mixed success in prosecuting the murderers. However, the punishments seem paltry when compared to the gruesome crime. But it is closer to the facts surrounding the real case in which the movie is based.
Don’t expect to feel justice has been fulfilled at the end of this movie, but do expect to learn about an aspect of the civil rights movement that seems to be largely forgotten.
As an interesting aside, reporter Jerry Mitchell, who worked for the The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., was inspired to investigate the “Mississippi Burning” killings after seeing a press screening of this movie. Wondering why none of the perpetrators had been tried for murder, he eventually discovered Mississippian Edgar Ray Killen helped plan and organize the killings but never faced punishment. Mitchell eventually obtained evidence to help convict Killen of murder in 2005. Serving three 20-year sentences, Killen is unlikely to ever be released from prison.
Despite the social significance of the movie, I was unhappy with a few things in it. For a movie mostly about black rights, there aren’t any black main characters. A few supporting characters, some of which seem quite strong, all feel one-dimensional and fake.
It acknowledges in passing the case is only receiving so much attention because two of the victims were white, which is probably true to the real crime. But the movie still excludes some major aspects pertaining to black victims.
During the real investigation of these murders, FBI agents uncovered nine additional bodies of black men who were presumably killed and buried in unrelated crimes. Yet that is missing entirely from the movie.
My own gripes aside, “Mississippi Burning” is a good movie that tackles a difficult subject matter in a meaningful way. I never lived through the civil rights era and I grew up in an integrated South. It is sometimes hard to believe brutality such as this occurred a little more than 50 years ago. In many cases justice was never adequately served. People who committed crimes like this could still be living and breathing as members of free society.
“Mississippi Burning” forces you to think about that, and it is nearly impossible not to feel morally outraged and disgusted. Likewise, it acknowledges the fear and danger activists and those fighting against segregation faced. Any movie that can bring out that kind of reaction is an expertly crafted one and certainly deserves your attention.
“Mississippi Burning” is not available on any major streaming platform, but it can be ordered on DVD from Amazon.com for $6.55.
Andrew Akers is a columnist for The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.