Mississippi's Burning

An Essay by Alan Smithee

American film critic Harlan Kennedy has written scathingly of 'the poverty of invention' in the film industry. He claims that Hollywood is driven by success at the Box Office and consequently the time is getting closer when "new stories will be a thing of the past: The packaging will change, a different star, a different locale, a different piece of music on the soundtrack - but for the rest each film will be essentially the same as all the others".

I watched Police Academy V on television last night and know what he means. No question about it the formula movie is here to stay. Like popular literature it has a part to play in common culture and it is precisely because of this that I would argue, even given the limitations of the Hollywood framework, it can be at its best both entertaining and a powerful vehicle for social change. Mississippi Burning directed by Alan Parker is one such film - a thought provoking and deeply moving piece of work, from conception a bankable asset, not an 'art film' but nonetheless 'a tale worth telling, powerfully told'. Released by Orion in 1988 the film was marketed as a thriller. The certification (15) clearly placed it in the commercially viable market with the production company addressing themselves to the cinema going audience and therefore restricting sex, violence and bad language to 'acceptable 'standards. Significantly violence had the highest profile in this film while sex was diluted into 'romance' and bad language was that which had already passed into common culture rather than serious profanity. The marketing hype exploited the selling features (in true Hollywood tradition) as being the thriller with violence of classic proportions dominated by the stature of its stars - William Dafoe and Gene Hackman. Parker's film however becomes much more than this. Loosely based in fact it exposes racism in the Deep South of America.

When three civil rights activists disappear from a small Mississippi town in 1964 the F.B.I. responds immediately (much is made of the fact that two of the missing men were white) by sending in agents Dafoe and Hackman, the former a by-the-book Yankee determined never to violate the rights of the interrogated, the latter a local boy and therefore tainted by the South, a streetwise complex character who believes simultaneously that to deal with 'scum' you must sink to gutter level and 'If you ain't better than a "nigger" who are you better than?' This of course is formula movie of a sort - the instantly recognisable 'buddy-buddy' cop movie fleshed out with the generic conventions of the thriller. Somehow though the film expands the generic strait jacket and becomes an ideological statement. When Dafoe and Hackman put in their first appearance - two cops motoring into Mississippi - their character defining banter comes as a light relief to the opening sequence just witnessed by the audience - for it was in those opening moments of the film that Parker seared his message into our consciousness in images fired by anger:

Mississippi Burning brings out precisely the imperviousness of a Southern community to change - the intractability of economic and social oppression. At a time when the anti-liberal values of small town America still seem in the ascendant, and when the Supreme Court is whittling away at the achievements of the 1960's, the films underlying message is that all those battles have to be fought again and much harder than before.

The Opening Sequence clearly establishes the mood of the film as being one of anger - a justified response to the events we witness and an anger which is fed throughout the film. The first image is a visual metaphor of hate and destruction. In the dark of night angry flames lick the sky and this, for me, becomes the dominant image of the film recurring frequently as a plaintive voice sings a black spiritual. This image is central to the film - the oppression and the painful response to it is at the heart of the film. The plaintive voice, the flaming cross and the contextless destruction by fire shifts the focus of this film to issues rather than individuals although the tension between individuals has also a part to play in moving the narrative forward. A detailed examination of the opening sequence alone firmly establishes the thriller genre - masterly in its control of tension and suspense.

There are in fact two distinct sequences which Parker fuses (montage) to imply a relationship between them. Firstly the opening image of a burning shack in the night followed by a lengthier sequence ln a car filmed in long shot coming slowly through the night towards the camera. The mis-en-scene in this sequence is a testimony to Parker's skill in creating suspense and tension from the first shot of the activists car driving through the still of the night, then the unsettling, threatening and ultimately terrifying rhythm of the soundtrack which accompanies their predators 'chase' to the brutal murder which we, the audience, knew was inevitable. Hitchcock the master of the thriller genre identified Suspense as being of crucial importance in the genre. Suspense, he said, is created when a character in a film is in danger, but doesn't know it while the audience can see that the character is in danger - The audience is waiting for something to happen and it does.

In essence the film is a study of race hatred and the director has employed the conventions of classical editing to construct this 'hatred' in such a way as to draw the audience into an empathy with the focus of hate being the activists and then the Blacks.

Any critical analysis of the film then should involve a deconstruction of 'the polished, continuous and seamless flow' that is the Editing is, of course, only one feature of the composition and various aspects of the mis-en-scene reinforce the nature of the relationship between the oppressed and their oppressors. These are readily identifiable in the Opening Sequence. It is the blackness of the night which links the opening shot of the burning shack with the series of shots which follow and culminate in the murder. There follows a series of establishing shots alternating between the long shots of the activists car and close-ups inside the car with one of its occupants, the Black, given dominance (the off centre framing giving a feeling of instability to the scene.) Simultaneously the silence is broken by the soundtrack. The strangely menacing and intensifying beating of drums linked to a series of wide angle shots of the convoy convince the audience that it is a dangerous predator. As the speed, music and ultimately the threat intensifies the camera takes us inside the car and we become part of the panic being experienced by the three young men. Significantly it is the Black Activist who assesses the situation correctly with " Oh they ain't playing you better believe me." Their murder, when it happens is cold-blooded and brutal and Parker has prepared us for it throughout this sequence. We have moved from the establishing long shot of the car to empathetic close-ups of the young men to extreme close-ups - framing the head and chin of one of the murderers, terrifying in its effect. Several high angle shots establishing the dominance of the police and the vulnerability of their victims and of course the deep south drawl which with 'I shot me a "nigger"' feeds into our existing knowledge of Klan territory. At this, white graphics appear on a black screen announcing 'Mississippi 1964' to the sound of raucous, redneck laughter and the narrative unfolds. The film follows a classical narrative structure and events are organised according to a strict linear narrative of cause and effect. The hermeneutic code is evident in the opening sequence of the film and poses the central enigma - the tracking down of the murderers and justice being seen to be done. In common with most Hollywood films there are two plot lines the outward struggle to solve the murder and the inner struggle - the 'buddy-buddy' 'bonding' which takes place between Dafoe and Hackman by the end of the film - successful closure is effected in both cases and the enigmas of the opening are resolved. It is the proiaretic code which fuses the two main enigmas of the narrative and sequences events in such a way as to both amuse and sustain the viewers interest and the film is shaped by the generic conventions of the thriller.

The film begins with the icons of apartheid (separate water fountains) and violence (a burning church and the murder of three activists) and it is against this backdrop that we examine the carefully constructed characters who serve as 'actants' - pushing the plot along and making possible different narrative strategies. Added to this, as John Fiske states in his book 'Television Culture' but equally applicable here, they also "embody political discourse and ideology rather than construct individual selves." This is certainly the case in the characterisation of Ward (Dafoe) and Anderson (Hackman) they become the embodiment of the conflict which is in essence what the film is about. Ward is ideologically sound yet Parker's sympathies do not lie entirely with him. He believes that things can be changed and represents the spirit of radical optimism yet he is shown to be out of place in Mississippi in a variety of ways - the diner scene where he stupidly ignores segregation and questions a silent black kid who is consequently treated brutally by the Klu Klux Klan - the scene where he heads a line of grey-suited investigators as they wade waste deep into the river to examine the car the murdered boys were driving.

He seems not to understand the people he is dealing with and his learning process is a crucial part of the narrative. Similarly Anderson must also learn and does so at key stages in the narrative. Steeped in the racism of the south he senses its enormity and fears it. Early in the film he challenges Ward with "you admire these kids, don't you (murdered activists)?" He must learn to admire their courage too. It is not enough for Parker, or the audience that Anderson, adept at extracting information by stealth is content to lock up the culprits and get out. He has become immune to the brutality of racism and its all pervasiveness and it's only when faced with one of its by products in the shape of the Deputy's wife lying beaten to pulp in a hospital bed for colluding with him that he accepts the need to go at the roots of racism. The characters of Ward and Anderson are at the centre of the narrative and audience identification with them is straightforward - we observe Wards naivete but we respect his vision - we understand Anderson's resistance to change and are drawn into his anger when he resolves to 'open this can of worms from the inside'. The narrative speeds towards closure in Hollywood style.

Ward and Anderson resolve their personal conflict and become singleminded in resolving the central enigma. Characteristically, Anderson's violence is exploited at this point in the film - a heavy is hired to extract information from the Mayor with threats of castration; a mock execution is staged to frighten one of the criminals into revealing the truth; Anderson goes after the Deputy with a razor blade and we, the audience are with him cheering him on but, thank God, the film does not end there.

Yes there is a high degree of narrative closure, the crime is resolved- the ugly rednecks, the Deputy and his co-conspirators all receive jail sentences and Anderson and Ward do reach some degree of mutual understanding but, and for me this is the real strength of the film, there's no real sense of triumph, no sense that racism has been dispensed. The mood of the film as it moves to its close shifts between despair and hope. When Anderson visits the Deputy's wife at the end of the film the mis-en-scene conveys through a melancholy soundtrack and the debris of her home, a wider sense of devastation and chaos. She tells Anderson "There's enough people around here know what I did was right" but we sense the enormity of shifting the balance in any significant way to allow others the freedom to show the courage required to challenge a community's racist assumptions.

The closing sequence of the film goes some way to redressing the balance. Parker forces his audience to look at these people in their pain and grief. The film ends as it began with the voice of a black woman shot in close-up and as she sings the camera cuts from her to close-ups of other faces mainly black but some white - in this way Parker by depriving us of setting ensures we feel their pain their bitterness, their courage but most of all their hope - the words of the spiritual anchor this as our reading of these shots. Only then does the camera move out and contextualise the event - it is the final funeral of the film and the soundtrack dominates the images- no words are spoken until Ward and Anderson, present but distanced from the crowd, turn their backs on the funeral and walk towards their car-it is obvious that they have resolved their conflict when Ward asks Anderson 'Do you want to drive this Richard?' The film ends with a powerful visual metaphor - wide angle shot shows Ward and Anderson leaving, the camera pans the landscape of the cemetery and finally comes to rest not on an individual but on a smashed tombstone the date 1964, the time set of the film. For me this is the power of film at its best, Parker has taken us on an exhausting journey, the fusing of sound and image (the words ' Not Forgotten ' are just readable) tell us the journey is not over and at that the credits roll the spiritual continues but becomes upbeat, hopeful and ultimately joyful. When considering representation within the film again one must acknowledge the 'limitations' of the Hollywood framework for it was in this area that the film received its strongest criticism.

In How to Read a Film Monaco states that like all forms of mass entertainment , film has been powerfully mythopocic even as it has entertained. "Hollywood helped mightily to shape - and often exaggerate - our national myths and therefore our sense of selves. In Mississippi Burning the 'sense of self' represented in the Black community was severely limiting that this is so should not surprise us, racism pervades American film because it is a basic strain in American history says Monaco: It is one of the ugly facts of film history that the landmark 'The Birth of a Nation (1915) can be generally hailed as a classic despite its essential racism. No amount of technical expertise demonstrated, money invested, or artistic effect should be allowed to outweigh 'The Birth of a Nation's military anti-Black political stance, yet we continue in film history as it is presently written to praise the film for its form, ignoring , or at best paying lip service to its disastrous content.'

In Mississippi Burning the Blacks are almost without exception seen as mute victims - Anderson and Ward meet a wall of silence wherever they go and significantly the information they are seeking when it comes, comes from another victim - the Deputy's wife. Her new understanding of racism: 'You get told it enough times you believe it. You live it , breathe it, marry it', is seen by Parker as a way through. As she leaves the street were a brutalized blacks' body has been dumped from a passing car, her hand on a black man's shoulder expresses solidarity. Similarly, caught by her husband as she plays with the child of a black neighbour the nervous visual glances she casts in his direction reflects both the intensity of his racist hatred and her own vulnerability at being childless.

There is truth here yet simultaneously there is the distortion that is Hollywood. The historical 'inaccuracies' provoked complaints from several quarters - in particular from Blacks who resented their 'passive 'representation given that much was achieved by the grass-roots radicalism in the sixties. Parker's and my, answer to these complaints would be that the film was an attempt at articulating their anger and in movies, as in life, things change slowly. Mississippi Burning was one of Hollywood's finer achievements.

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