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Critic's Notebook : Some 'Burning' Questions

December 18, 1988|SHEILA BENSON

With "Mississippi Burning," director Alan Parker raises more than a few solid questions for reviewers: How much tampering with the facts can be accepted in the name of a good cause? Granted that Parker has insisted that his film is fiction. However, it's fiction set solidly in the facts of the day: The disappearance of three civil rights workers in the first days of the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964. His young men match the murdered Michael Schwermer, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney down to their race, their accents and even one man's "beatnik" goatee.

The film leaves nobody neutral. I know that in my own case, it provoked a heated luncheon discussion with a visiting film maker-friend who found the picture stunning. He listened patiently to my catalogue of demurs, then said he thought I'd be wrong to bring them up in a review; that--unlike many of us who'd lived through that period, no matter how safely removed from Neshoba County, or Selma or Birmingham--there was a whole generation who would be learning about the civil rights movement from this film. For them, he felt, the film's portrait of the real conditions in rural Mississippi 24 years ago so far outweighed its omissions or its bending of facts, that it becomes almost one's duty to support it.

I certainly understand his concern. There are few enough American movies to deal with social issues at all today, so that the ones that do seem to carry a special weight. That's especially true with a film that's made as persuasively as "Mississippi Burning," which is what makes its deficiencies so especially troubling.

I think my friend's premise brings up more difficulties than it solves: If this film is all you know about Mississippi in the 1960s, you're going to have a pretty peculiar picture of those apocalyptic times and especially of the ways change was finally brought to the South.

Many of the other writers who were disappointed by the film were struck by the same point that I was trying to make during that arm-waving lunch: "Mississippi Burning" is missing a lot more than three civil rights workers. Parker seems to have left out black activism altogether. His black citizens are cast almost uniformly as victims, there to be beaten, reviled or lynched; the leader among them is a boy preacher who appears to be about 11. To judge from this film, neither the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee nor the Congress of Racial Equality existed. Where were the Freedom Riders or the rest of the Mississippi Summer Project volunteers? You'd have to ask Parker or his writer, Chris Gerolmo.

What Parker doesn't seem to have gotten straight is the authorship of the movement whose existence is the core of his story. The civil rights movement in Mississippi was the spontaneous creation of young black students. Its gains came about because of the patient, bloody stoicism of these men and women who endured unconscionable abuse, who were jailed, beaten and murdered until, in desperation, they invited white students to join them, well aware of the risk involved. It was only when two white New Yorkers were murdered with a black Mississippian, that America finally acted.

The FBI had certainly not turned out in force a year before, when four little black girls were murdered in Birmingham, Ala., as the Ku Klux Klan dynamited their church. Under Hoover, the bureau had been notoriously diffident in acting on complaints of civil rights violations in the past. The sympathies of many of the agents who were also Southerners were hardly a secret. But the death of two white men alongside one black one made this case different. Prodded by President Lyndon Johnson, Hoover sent 100 agents to Mississippi by the end of June, and in July opened a branch office in Jackson, Miss. The film, however, takes the presence of these hundred men in their dark shirts, white shirts and narrow ties only as heroic, not historically ironic.

Certainly, it was those 44 days when FBI agents swarmed into this little town, their arrest--and the subsequent prosecution--of some of the guilty men that finally "turned the state around," in the words of Seth Kagin. (Kagin is co-author with Philip Dray of "We Are Not Afraid," the detailed account of the Goodman/Schwermer/Chaney murders and an invaluable portrait of the climate of those times.)

The FBI presence helped break down the unspoken but very real link between much of Mississippi's law enforcement and the Klan, the situation that had foiled attempts to register voters, or even to have an accredited black student admitted to Ole Miss. But it's a peculiar perversion of the facts to eliminate the very people whose ingenuity and bravery had carried the movement this far.

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