Mississippi Burning

Mississippi Burning
Mississippi Burning

Theatrical poster by Bill Gold
Directed by Alan Parker
Produced by Robert F. Colesberry
Frederick Zollo
Written by Chris Gerolmo
Frederick Zollo
Starring Gene Hackman
Willem Dafoe
Brad Dourif
Frances McDormand
Music by Trevor Jones
Cinematography Peter Biziou
Editing by Gerry Hambling
Distributed by Orion Pictures
Release date(s) December 9, 1988 (1988-12-09)
Running time 128 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $15 million
Box office $34,603,943 (USA)

Mississippi Burning is a 1988 American crime drama film loosely based on the FBI investigation into the real-life murders of three civil rights workers in the U.S. state of Mississippi in 1964. The film focuses on two fictional FBI agents (portrayed by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) who investigate the murders. Hackman's character (Agent Rupert Anderson) and Dafoe's character (Agent Alan Ward) are loosely based on the partnership of FBI agent John Proctor and agent Joseph Sullivan.

The film also features Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, and Gailard Sartain, and was written by Chris Gerolmo and directed by Alan Parker. It won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Hackman), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (McDormand), Best Director, Best Film Editing (Gerry Hambling), Best Picture and Best Sound.



The story is loosely based on the real-life murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. After the three are reported missing, two FBI agents are sent to investigate the incident in rural Jessup County, Mississippi (modeled after Neshoba County where the real murders took place). The two agents take completely different approaches: Agent Alan Ward (Dafoe), a young liberal northerner, takes a direct approach to the investigation; Agent Rupert Anderson (Hackman), a former Mississippi sheriff who understands the intricacies of race relations in the South, takes a more subtle tack.

It is very hard for the two to work in the town, as the local sheriff's office is linked to a major branch of the Ku Klux Klan, and the agents cannot talk to the local black community, due to their fear of Klan retaliation. Slowly but steadily, relations between the FBI and the local Jessup County sheriff's office deteriorate, as do relations between Ward and Anderson. Things boil over when the bodies are found and the deputy sheriff, Clinton Pell, realizes that his wife gave their locations to Anderson, and he assaults her. When Anderson sees her in the hospital, he storms off to confront Pell but is stopped by Ward. After a brief scuffle, the two agree that they will work together and bring down the Jessup County branch of the Ku Klux Klan using Anderson's as yet untried approach.

The new tactics begin when the mayor is abducted. He comes around in a remote shack, alone except for a black man (played by Badja Djola) wearing a rudimentary mask, similar to those used by KKK members in the film. Relating a story of how a young black man was castrated by the KKK, he implies that the mayor will likewise be disfigured unless he talks by wielding a razor blade while relating the tale. In reality, the abductor is an FBI operative specially flown in to intimidate the mayor. The mayor gives the operative an acute description of the killings, including the names of those involved; although not admissible in court, this information prove invaluable to Anderson and Ward and moves the investigation forward.

Anderson uses the new information to send fake invitations to the involved KKK parties, who turn up for a meeting. They soon realize it's a set up and leave without discussing the murders. The FBI, who are eavesdropping, hone in on Lester Cowens, a junior member of the outfit, as being particularly nervous and unable to stop talking. He is later picked up by the FBI and driven prominently around town to make it appear that he may be cooperating with them. He then is dropped off in colored country to "think" about some stuff.

Anderson pays a visit to the barbershop where Deputy Sheriff Pell is getting a shave with a straight razor. Anderson slips in the place of the barber allowing him to ensure that Pell stays still while Anderson threatens him, nicking him with the razor. Anderson then brutally beats Pell, both for his role in the murders and his assault of his wife. Ward, waiting outside and unable to bear the ongoing beating, attempts to go in; he is stopped by the other FBI men Anderson has called in, and he silently remembers his pledge to do things Anderson's way. Pell is left spinning in a barber's chair, unconscious, as Anderson leaves.

A nervous Lester Cowens is at home when his window is shot out. On the lawn is a burning cross. Cowens tries to flee in his truck but is caught by three hooded men who begin to hang him. The FBI arrive, rescue Cowens, and chase the thugs to the sound of gunshots. Out of sight, the abductors remove their masks and reveal that they are also FBI agents. The ruse works. Cowens, believing his life is in danger because his KKK co-conspirators think he'll talk, does just that. The FBI now has evidence admissible in court and can prosecute the culprits. They charge them with civil rights violations to ensure they will be tried at the federal level; four of them had previously been convicted in a state court of firebombing a black man's home, only to receive five-year suspended sentences. Most are found guilty and receive sentences from three to ten years. Sheriff Stuckey is acquitted. The mayor, who was not charged with anything, hangs himself. Pell's wife returns to her home, which has been completely ransacked. She resolves to stay and rebuild her life, free of her wicked husband.

The film concludes with a Sunday morning service on the site of a destroyed house of worship, attended by both white and black churchgoers singing in unison. Ward addresses Anderson as "Rupert"; suggesting they are now on first name terms.


Historical background

Mississippi Burning was based on the historical events surrounding the murders of three Mississippi civil rights workers. The story was first turned into a 1975 television docudrama titled Attack on Terror: The FBI vs. the Ku Klux Klan, depicting many of the same events as the film.

Neither production gave the real names of the murderers, due to legal considerations, and Mississippi Burning does not mention the victims (who are referred to as "the Boys") by name in the film. In the film credits they are simply identified as "Goatee," based on Michael Schwerner, played by Geoffrey Nauffts; "Passenger," based on Andrew Goodman, played by Rick Zieff; and "Black Passenger," based on James Chaney, played by Christopher White.

The film presents Clinton Pell's wife as the informant. The identity of the real informant, known in history as "Mr. X.," was a closely held secret for forty years. In the process of reopening the case, journalist Jerry Mitchell and teacher Barry Bradford discovered his real name.[1] The mysterious black associate of Rupert Anderson who threatens to castrate the mayor while he is bound to the chair is based on Colombo crime family capo and FBI informant Gregory Scarpa Sr. The character "Frank Bailey," played by Michael Rooker, is based on Alton Wayne Roberts, Stephen Tobolowsky as "Clayton Townley" based on Samuel Bowers and Pruitt Taylor Vince as "Lester Cowens" based on Edgar Ray Killen.

Critical reaction

Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 86% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 274 reviews, with an average score of 8/10. The film has been criticized by many,[citation needed] including historian Howard Zinn, for its alleged fictionalization of history. Parker defended his film by reminding critics that it was a dramatization, not a documentary. However, critics complained about the film as though it were purporting to be a historical reconstruction rather than a work of drama broadly inspired by events.

According to Zinn: While FBI agents are portrayed as heroes who descend upon the town by the hundreds, in reality the FBI and the Justice Department only reluctantly protected civil rights workers and protesters and reportedly witnessed beatings without intervening.[2] It was also criticized due to its portrayal of southern African Americans as passive victims. The image of African Americans as passive also shapes the film's reenactment of the assassinations;[3] New York Times film reviewer wrote that the film's alleged distortions amounted to a "cinematic lynching" of history.

According to the testimony of Colombo crime family contract killer Gregory S. Scarpa Jr., the cinematic version may have come closer to the truth than the official FBI story out of Washington, D.C. His story has been supported in several news accounts by unnamed FBI agents purported to have worked on the MIBURN case, as well as Scarpa's own FD-209 reports, which were released and made public after his death. Gregory S. Scarpa Jr. has said that his father, Colombo crime family capo and Top Echelon FBI informant Gregory Scarpa Sr., offered his services in the case to his FBI handler, Anthony Villano. He made a three-day trip to Mississippi where, posing as a member of the national Ku Klux Klan himself, he and an FBI helper kidnapped a local appliance salesman and Ku Klux Klan member who was viewed by the FBI as a potential weak link in the case. They took the man to a remote location, tied him to a chair, and interrogated him. The first two times he told the story, the agent and Scarpa believed that the man was lying. On the third try, Scarpa pulled his gun on the suspect. "He said he took a gun and put in the guy's mouth and said: For the last time, where are the bodies or I'll blow your head off", Gregory S. Scarpa Jr. testified. Events similar to Scarpa Jr.'s story are reenacted in the film. The KKK member finally confessed to the location of the bodies, Scarpa Jr. said.

One such report, written in January 1966, states that Scarpa was later used as a "special" — the FBI term for a nonagent working for the Bureau in the murder of Vernon Dahmer, the head of the NAACP office in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Dahmer's house was torched by the Ku Klux Klan, and the memo states that Scarpa Sr. was sent to Hattiesburg to work on the case. However, evidence from journalist Jerry Mitchell and Illinois high school teacher Barry Bradford contradicts this account. They claim that the informant who revealed the location of the bodies was highway patrolman Maynard King, who gave the information willingly to FBI agent Joseph Sullivan.[1] The similarity between Scarpa's account and the film may be best explained by the fact that Scarpa's testimony was recorded some years after the film was released. Both the Justice Department and the FBI have officially declined to comment on any role Gregory Scarpa Sr. may have played in the MIBURN. In Cartha DeLoach's account of the MIBURN case in his memoir, Hoover's FBI, he does not mention Scarpa. It does say that a squad of COINTELPRO agents were sent to interview members of the Ku Klux Klan and that "many of them were big, bruising men, highly trained in the tactics of interrogation."

Cartha "Deke" DeLoach's official version is that the FBI paid for its first big break in the case, which was the location of the bodies. In his memoirs, he describes the men only as "a minister and a member of the highway patrol." DeLoach does not say how the two men knew that the three civil rights workers had been buried under twelve feet of dirt in an earthen dam on a large farm a few miles outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, but he did say that the FBI paid $30,000 for the piece of crucial information.

The statement made by "Mayor Tilman" to the FBI agents is paraphrased from a quote by U.S. Senator James Eastland, who reportedly said that when the three civil rights workers (Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman) went missing in Mississippi on June 21, 1964, "the incident is a hoax and there is no Ku Klux Klan in the state; the three have gone to Chicago," and that it was staged by the three young men to call attention to their cause. J. Edgar Hoover, who was being pressured by President Lyndon B. Johnson, was determined to break the case. He flew to Mississippi just before the first anniversary of the disappearance, which was officially regarded as a "kidnapping" to justify the FBI's involvement.



Wisconsin v. Mitchell

The film itself shaped history when a group of African Americans got enraged after drinking and discussing the film, particularly the scene in which a white man beat a young black boy who was praying, and one of the group incited the others to beat up a passing 14-year-old white boy based on his skin color. The ensuing court case Wisconsin v. Mitchell was not only one of the few high-profile cases about a hate crime perpetrated by African Americans against whites but also led to a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court ruling that a state may consider whether a crime was committed or initially considered due to an intended victim's status in a protected class. The case became thereby an important precedent pertaining to First Amendment free speech arguments for hate crime legislation.

See also

  • Aakrosh, an unofficial remake of Mississippi Burning.


  1. ^ a b Jerry Mitchell, The Story Of The Real "Mr. X"
  2. ^ Howard Zinn, "Federal Bureau of Intimidation"
  3. ^ in the film, the "Goatee" character is driving the workers' station wagon, with the "Black Passenger" in the back seat, as it is pursued by the Klan. In reality, African American James Chaney was the driver of the station wagon that entire, final day of the civil rights workers' lives. It was Chaney who decided to make a last-ditch escape attempt by speeding away from their soon-to-be executioners.
  4. ^ "Berlinale: 1989 Prize Winners". berlinale.de. http://www.berlinale.de/en/archiv/jahresarchive/1989/03_preistr_ger_1989/03_Preistraeger_1989.html. Retrieved 2011-03-12. 
  5. ^ "The 61st Academy Awards (1989) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. http://www.oscars.org/awards/academyawards/legacy/ceremony/61st-winners.html. Retrieved 2011-10-16. 
  6. ^ Awards Internet Movie Database.


  • Deadly Alliance: The FBI's Secret Partnership with the Mob by Ralph Ranalli
  • Cagin & Dray, We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988. Pages 289, 290, 294 & 295. ISBN 0-02-520260-X.
  • David Spain, M.D. Mississippi Autopsy, Ramparts magazine. Pages 43 – 49, 1965.

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Mississippi Burning — Données clés Réalisation Alan Parker Scénario Chris Gerolmo Acteurs principaux Gene Hackman Willem Dafoe Frances McDormand Brad Dourif Pays d’origine …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Mississippi Burning — Título Arde Mississippi (España) Mississippi en llamas (Argentina / Perú / Venezuela) Ficha técnica Dirección Alan Parker Producción Robert F. Colesberry Frederick Zollo …   Wikipedia Español

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  • Mississippi Burning — 1988 film about the murder of three civil rights activists during the 1960s (starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) …   English contemporary dictionary

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