I would like to acquaint you with a very moving film today. This film does not hold a place in my top favourites because it is heart-warming, or funny, or clever, but because it is disturbing, and real, and historical. “Mississippi Burning” was released in 1988, and stars Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman.
The basic synopses is this: In 1964, in Jessup County, Mississippi, three civil rights activists (one black boy and two white boys) disappear. FBI agent Ward (Dafoe) and Mr. Anderson (Hackman) are recruited to find the missing boys. They quickly discover that the Sheriff department is corrupt and racism is alive and well. KKK members abound. They run up against many obstacles created by their members and uncover more and more frightening acts. Once they find the bodies of the three activists, they go after every guilty member of the KKK and fight to bring them to justice.
“Mississippi Burning” opens with a shot of two water fountains, each labeled “white” and “colored.” Next, a burning inferno of a church is shown. Immediately, the stage is set. You know exactly what this film is going to be about. Dafoe and Hackman’s opening scene is them driving down the highway. Hackman is leafing through the case file and pulls a KKK song from the pages He begins singing, and the lyrics alone tell you exactly what the KKK believe and what they are going to be up against before anything even happens.
What I love about this film is that it bothers you, it makes you feel uncomfortable. Which is what should happen, you shouldn’t feel nothing while watching heinous acts of racism. They achieve this in a number of ways. The first would be the language. The people of Jessup County hold no qualms about speaking exactly how they feel black people. Of course the “N” word is tossed around more than a baseball in a game of catch between father and son. Other derogatory words are used, and it’s the brazenness of these words that help to make you feel uncomfortable. The film also depicts horrific scenes of abuse, lynchings, destruction of homes and churches, and inhumane treatment.
The biggest question that comes to my mind while watching this film, is why? I wonder why these people feel they are right in terrorizing and murdering black people. Why they feel they are doing a service. Why they think black people don’t belong in Mississippi.
Religion is pointed out as the cause for them hating black people. They mention some scripture that says that blacks are bad and they should not exist with white people. Dafoe’s character asked at one point, as he held a beaten and bloody black youth, “Where does all this hate come from?” Hackman didn’t have an answer for him. It is mentioned that the people of Jessup County are God fearing Christians, and that is why they won’t tolerate black people like the rest of America.
I find their reasoning confused, because if black people exist, wouldn’t that mean that this God they worship, created them? Wouldn’t that mean that he meant them to be here? I feel that hate is an ugly snake that twists around your brain until there is no justification you can give for doing something awful other than simply because you hate them.
Racism is not something you are born with, it is something that you are taught. This statement was reflected in the film at a KKK rally, where it showed innocent toddlers and children, held by their parents, listening to the evil words of the clan leader. This was a representation, to me, that racism is passed down. It showed the next generation of racists, and what will happen over and over.
The film also shows the vicious cycle that keeps the racism alive. Blacks would be attacked, but they refused to press charges, because they believed it would do more harm than good. With do consequences, the KKK were free to prowl.
Something I found very interesting was that even though KKK members thought they were doing the right thing, they refused to say they were involved in anything in front of cameras and interviewers. Privately though, they would admit their guilt to Hackman because he could do nothing about it. The members held the attitude that not a single court in Mississippi would convict them for their actions. When three members of the KKK were identified by a black boy for attacking his family, they are given suspended sentences. The judge gives the excuse that the reason they acted out was because of the outsiders who have stirred up the County. I’ll admit, watching that scene, I wanted to jump up and shout “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Much of the music in the film is Gospel. This gave the film a small town religious vibe. It also created a heart breaking juxtaposition between the God that both the whites and blacks worship, and the unspeakable acts committed.
I always feel immeasurably moved after watching “Mississippi Burning,” often finding my eyes beginning to water. It make you wonder how people can become so misguided and regard one group of human’s lives worth nothing. The lack of empathy or any sense of remorse for the abuse and murder is what bothers me the most. They believed they were doing the right thing. Which is wrong on so many levels. If anything, I hope watching this film will be uncomfortable and difficult for you too, because if we aren’t distressed by racism, then I fear for our children’s future.