Contributing writer Kyle Turner has weighed and measured Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning — and has found it wanting.
Alan Parker’s 1988 race drama Mississippi Burning opens with a shot of two water fountains adjacent to one another barely lit, one labeled “white” and the other “colored”. Following the title card, a church is up in flames, as if to give notice to the ideological warfare at hand. The film knows exactly where it wants to be in this war, and it wants you to know, too.
Director Alan Parker and screenwriter Chris Gerolmo carry on this stark black and white illustration throughout the film. From the good cop/racist cop dynamic of Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman, respectively, – here to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers – to the rather blunt dialogue. “You know what I think, I think it’s a publicity stunt cooked up by that Martin Luther King fella,” says racist Sheriff Stuckey when Dafoe and Hackman arrive on the scene. This creates a bit of an internal conflict in me: on the one hand, it’s completely believable that someone in this era would say such a ludicrous thing, as I have, in my short time as a cognizant progressive, seen similar bizarre things also with regard to race, in addition to gender, sexuality, etc. But on the other, it translates very poorly to the screen, especially in the actor’s heavy drawl, as if this desire for authenticity undermines exactly that. It sounds silly, particularly when regarding this film as a piece of the past and a time capsule.
“Where does it come from, all this hatred?” asks Dafoe’s good cop Alan Ward, more to himself than anything. Hackman’s relatively racist/all too defensive of Mississippi cop Rupert Anderson retells a story about his father, as if to excuse the “old man” of his racism. Dafoe calls him out on it, and it’s immediately followed by the rather memorable image of their hotel room being attacked, the exterior of which is illuminated by a cross engulfed in flames. So, we can deduce that Mississippi Burning isn’t exactly subtle.
But when dealing with race, and, in conjunction, racism, in a period piece no less, what place does subtlety have exactly? Ava DuVarnay’s recent accomplishment Selma is to be admired because of its careful use of subtlety and bluntness: its opening moments, in which we experience a church exploding (whether this is a nod to Burning or merely a recreation of a reality, I am not sure) are decidedly not subtle, but effective nonetheless. But in the throes of the march to Selma, Alabama, there’s an overwhelming emotion that is completely conjured by carefully orchestrated series of shots, faces, and movements. That calculation – also present in intimate scenes between Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, as well as during scenes of strategic planning – is rather admirable in how the wiring never shows and it never feels overtly manipulative.
Then again, Selma is not a “white savior” narrative like Burning. This generic declaration isn’t a bad thing, per se, but a reality of the narrative trajectory of the film. Blunt racism, to a point where it jars the audience, partially due to unfamiliarity because many like to believe we live in a post-racial society, seems to occupy more white savior films (The Help, Gran Torino, To Kill a Mockingbird) than narratives in which black people are the protagonists (12 Years a Slave, Do the Right Thing, In the Heat of the Night). That racism, the experience of it, and the perpetrating of it, remains an unfortunate fact of 21st century life.
Again, this isn’t to say that racism, in all of its disgusting and petulant forms, doesn’t exist in the latter kind of film, nor does it mean that the racism is more “palatable”. But it appears that the bigotry in these movies exists less to shock the audience and more to acclimate the audience to a lived reality, something so normalized that it’s in its very innocuousness that it feels more sinister.
So I suppose the next logical question is why there’s such a difference, and, frankly, I don’t know why. To speculate, white savior narratives often are directed by white people, and cater to that particular demographic more than a black demographic. The bigoted acts seem so sorely obvious in Mississippi Burning that it almost seems fetishistic, in comparison to 12 Years a Slave, which, despite being incredibly violent, makes the audience soak in this natural inclination to have an ethnocentric perspective. Films where black storytellers are able to articulate their own lived experiences (admittedly In the Heat of the Night is not one of these) do not feel the need to hold hands with their audience. It isn’t their job to tell you racism is bad.
With that said, it’s rather surprising how little time Mississippi burning spends on observing or examining the impact that race crimes have on the black community. Though we see many an exploding church, and even a sobering in-person attack, Burning is disconcertingly myopic. Yes, it’s from the point of view of the aforementioned FBI agents, but that’s to suggest that those FBI agents wouldn’t take note on the impact this crime, or these crimes, would have on the community at large. It’s as if the film is more concerned with showing Point A, but not Point B– the ramifications and consequences of these acts.
Burning also retreats this setting like black lives exist pretty exclusively within the confines of being physically/verbally attacked and marching. We see how the white community thinks of them, though. Intermittently, the film is sprinkled with talking heads of white people talking about black people. We get a lot of the white perspective, as it were. But we already know what they think and how they act towards black people. If progressivism is the point, isn’t it just as important to elevate the voices of the unheard? Even in a film about the inequality between white people and black people, it is itself unequal in its examination of white people and black people in the midst of racial unrest. It is, ideologically, a black and white film– but mostly white.
Mississippi Burning is available on limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time. The new release includes audio commentary with director Alan Parker.