By KJ Hamilton
Mississippi Burning – 1988 – dir. Alan Parker
The basic plot: two FBI agents are sent to a small town in Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of three young poll workers. This wouldn’t be a big deal except the film is set in 1964, these pollsters were also civil rights workers, and one of them was African American. The two agents, Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Ward (Willem Dafoe) are as different as night and day. Ward has worked his way up through the ranks by following the strictest protocol. He knows the rule book inside and out. Anderson, on the other hand, spent the majority of his law enforcement career in a small Southern town. One agent is a Northerner, the other a Southerner. The dichotomy of that situation in the context of the rest of the film is quite interesting. You’ve got black versus white, north versus south, local versus federal, man versus woman. It’s an all-out war.
The film is based on a true story. And, while it might not have been absolutely factual, the film did pose an interesting question in my mind: how does something like this ever get resolved? Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Granted, Ward eventually relented his by-the-book ways and realized that there had to be a different way to solve the crime at hand. Once Agent Anderson took over, information just seemed to pour in. But, the murderers were not tried for murder. Instead, they were tried and conviction for violation of civil rights. Sounds familiar, right? Remember that Al Capone guy from 1930’s Chicago? He was tried and convicted of tax evasion; even though he was in clear violation of Prohibition; he bribed every city official; and murdered who knows how many people. People were too terrified of him to actually believe he could be tried and convicted of murder. The same holds true for the folks in Mississippi. It was outrageous to even consider that a white judge and jury would convict a white man of murdering a black man. They could have walked into court wearing bloody clothes and carrying the murder weapons and still would have been acquitted of murder. When does the prejudice end?
I have never understood the mindset behind those people who believe that one race is superior to another. Further, I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around the fact that there are people in this world willing to commit murder just to prove they’re superior. It’s quite contradictory, when you think about it, considering that it breaks one the Commandments that Christians hold dear. Townley makes this clear when he rejects all people of different religions and colors, “…because we’re here to protect Anglo-Saxon democracy and the American way.” At one point, Townley (Stephen Tobolowsky)—the ringleader and self proclaimed Christian, stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people and preached the supremacy of the while culture. I think what angered me the most about that scene was to see the children cheering and clapping and agreeing with the idiocy that Townley spouted. One of the best lines in the film was when Ward was confronted by one of the attendees. He says, “Oh, it looks like a political meeting, but smells more like Klan to me with or without the Halloween costumes.”
Films like this always make me angry. I’m not sure what angers me more: the ignorance of these people, or the fact that it took place at all. As I watched this film, I couldn’t help but to reflect on the events of late. We’ve just elected our first African-American president. In the context of 1964 Mississippi, they would have been likelier to elect a Martian. The long road that was traveled and the struggle that was fought culminated on a stage in Chicago. It made me proud for a moment that I had been a part of that change. Then I’m reminded that-while the struggle was unfortunately not mine, it is important to create films like Mississippi Burning and A Time to Kill if only to educate people, like myself. They also serve as a reminder of the road we—as a nation, as Americans, regardless of color—have traveled on. My anger can be channeled into teaching those who come after me that there is no such thing as a greater race. Equality was fought for, died for, and freedom will always reign.