Film Review

Mississippi Burning Scorches Historians

Robert Brent Toplin, April 1989

Public interest in the Hollywood film Mississippi Burning has promoted a lively discussion of connections between the visual media and history. Mississippi Burning deals with the murder of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964 and the efforts of the FBI to find the killers. No Hollywood production in recent years has attracted as much controversy about the responsibilities of a director in rendering an authentic portrayal of people and events. A number of commentators have criticized director Alan Parker for taking liberties with the facts and producing a film that contains as much fiction as the truth. The debate over Mississippi Burning raises important questions about filmed history and the boundaries of artistic license.

The film's greatest achievement is in conveying a sense of the terror during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964. Mississippi was a frightening and dangerous place to the blacks and whites who worked together to register voters and challenge segregation. Parker graphically portrays the night beatings, church burnings, and, of course, the brutal murder of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman on June 21, 1964. To some extent the director exaggerated the violence of the times to dramatize the story, but he does not exaggerate by much. After all, there had been rioting over James Meredith's admission into the University of Mississippi in 1962, the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963, and several other murders and assaults. During the summer of 1964, members of the Ku Klux Klan burned numerous homes and churches to the ground in Mississippi in the months following the Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman murders.

Even white newsmen experienced intimidation. David Halberstam, who had served as a small-town newspaper reporter in Mississippi, recalls that, "There always seemed to be a pickup truck with a whiplash aerial following me as I left a small town, threatening to bump me off the road." In Philadelphia, Mississippi a citizen bumped the car of an NBC cameraman and then chased him with a hunting knife while a crowd watched. A policeman then intervened and issued a citation against the cameraman for reckless driving. Four days later the NBC employee asked for a transfer out of Mississippi after a farmer shot at his low-flying helicopter while he was obtaining aerial footage of the area. Martin Luther King Jr. effectively summarized the environment around Philadelphia as late as 1966 when he said, "There is a complete reign of terror here."

In a number of small ways the movie portrays the case history accurately. The film's title came from "MIBURN," the FBI's codename for "Mississippi Burning." As in the film, Schwerner wore a goatee; FBI agents found the missing car in marshy terrain with help from a Choctaw Indian; and busloads of Naval personnel arrived at the scene to help search for the bodies. The FBI did, as the film conveys, turn the search into a massive bureaucratic effort, collecting about 150,000 pages of documents on the case. In a variety of other ways the director takes small liberties with the facts. For instance, he shows the black victim, Chaney, sitting in the back of the car (he drove it), and in the film Schwerner's murder occurs in a car (it took place in the woods). More critical, the FBI broke the case with help from an informant who responded to a $30,000 reward, not through assistance from the wife of a deputy sheriff or from others who revealed what they knew after facing the FBI's own form of terror tactics.

Several reviewers have criticized Parker for failing to give credit to the real heroes of the story. The civil rights workers, blacks and whites, should have been the focus of the film, critics argue, for these people risked their lives and forced the South and the nation to confront the wrongs of segregation and inequality. Reviewers especially note that the blacks in the films are almost all passive victims rather than movers and shakers who helped to bring down the "Jim Crow" system. But Parker considers these complaints inappropriate, because they refer to the making of a different movie. "Our film isn't about the civil rights movement," he explains. "It's about why there was a need for a civil rights movement." To a degree he achieves this goal, because the film effectively confronts audiences with virulent racism (including the institutional racism of the courts, the police, and city government) and reminds them of its place in American history. The movie also suggests the impact of class on prejudice by having the leading character (Gene Hackman) recall that his father used to say, "If you aren't better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?"

In dealing with the FBI's role in the case, Parker takes the film far from fact. He fails to note that the Bureau had not done much in the South to protect blacks, or that its director, Herbert Hoover, viewed the civil rights movement suspiciously (the dialogue does, however, mention Hoover's belief that Martin Luther King was under the influence of communists). The movie's portrayal of FBI agents abandoning legal techniques and adopting tactics of deceit and intimidation stretches truth to the breaking point. It borrows ideas from the Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood films to argue that the extra-legal strategies of a virile FBI agent finally brought law and order to Mississippi. Furthermore, it suggests that the appearance of numerous FBI agents in Mississippi provoked the summer of arson, shootings and beatings when, in fact, the invasion of college students through the "Freedom Summer" project was the real provocation.

By taking this approach, Parker overlooks the political context of events and loses the most important message about the impact of the Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney murders. It was not violence by law enforcement agents that brought progress for civil rights but the American public's abhorrence for racial violence. President Lyndon Baines Johnson came under tremendous pressure from the victims' relatives and the public to crack the case, and the President, himself, put pressure on the FBI to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and find the killers. Public outrage over the events in Philadelphia, Mississippi, stirred by the investigations of television, newspaper, and magazine journalists, helped to put teeth in the Civil Rights Act, which had passed the Senate shortly before the murders and became law a few weeks after the tragedy. Violent events of the next year, such as the killing of Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, excited support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Eventually, national repulsion over the reports of violence helped bring a full commitment of federal protection to blacks in the South. Not only does Parker's movie miss this conclusion, but it leaves the impression that journalism and public opinion had little influence on events.

The film conveys this assessment in a particularly important scene. Towards the end of the story, Gene Hackman, the hero, concludes that the effort to find the killers was frustrated, because it "turned into a show for the newsmen." Yet the historical record of that troubled period demonstrates that the violence of white racists and extensive media coverage of those atrocities contributed significantly to the victories of the civil rights movement.

Certainly a director may shape facts to fit the design of a historical drama much as novelists give a creative touch to historical fiction. If Parker had based his film vaguely on the generic qualities of white terrorism in Mississippi, there would be little reason for criticism. But, in basing his film on an actual and significant historical event, Parker invites scrutiny over details and concern for authenticity. By drawing so many parallels with the actual Philadelphia case while also creating significant fictional elements, the movie appropriately generates controversy. Historians—as well as the public—have good reason to ask whether Parker moved beyond the proper bounds of artistic license and manipulated the evidence excessively. His treatment of the story is unfortunate, because, where Mississippi Burning reflects the record, it presents riveting drama and important lessons about racial injustice. The truth behind the Mississippi story is so dramatic that there was no need to apply liberal doses of fiction.

—Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history, University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has written several film reviews for previous issues of Perspectives and is editor of the "Movie Review" section for the Journal of American History.