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Burning History

December 25, 1988

Re: "Mississippi Burning": "Black leaders like Coretta Scott King and journalists who covered the 1960s civil-rights movement" may be angry and/or surprised at how director Alan Parker distorted history by telling "the civil-rights struggle from a white point of view and relegating blacks to background and 'victim' roles." (Outtakes, Dec. 18).

Movie buffs who have followed Parker's career are not at all surprised, however. A decade ago, he so twisted/fictionalized the story of Billy Hayes (the American arrested for attempting to smuggle hashish out of Turkey) that even Hayes repudiated the film, and the Turkish government (very rightfully) denounced it as an ugly piece of anti-Turkish propaganda.

Despite these facts, Hollywood awarded its best-script Oscar in 1978 to "Midnight Express." With the same lack of sensitivity and overriding disregard for truth, therefore, it will probably award its best-picture Oscar to "Mississippi Burning."

One point puzzles me in all this. On Page 44 of the same Calendar issue, Sheila Benson wrote an excellent article, "Some 'Burning' Questions," pinpointing all the doubts and negative reactions to those opposed to Parker's version of Mississippi in 1964. But in the "Now Playing" capsule review of the same issue, we are given this classic sentence by Benson: "If you listen closely to the dialogue, it's clear that director Alan Parker's respect for this almost holy period of American Struggle is what has expanded upon a pretty pedestrian script."

Once again, we are forced to ask the by-now-stock-but-hardly-trite questions: "Does Sheila Benson remember/believe what she has written? What are we readers supposed to believe, based on what she has written?"

If, as she states, Parker "left out black activism altogether--blotting out the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Freedom Riders and the rest of the Mississippi Summer Project volunteers"--how in the name of reviewing and the English language can all this qualify as "respect for an almost holy period of American Struggle?"


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