Communication Currents

Remembering the Civil Rights Struggle

April 1, 2009
Critical and Cultural Studies, Theater & Performance

The 1988 film Mississippi Burning drew extensive criticism for its portrayal of the FBI's investigation of three murdered civil rights activists in 1964. As critics noted, the movie ignored the role of black activists who struggled for racial justice even as it graphically depicted the violence that activists and other blacks faced during the civil rights era. An analysis of the motion picture's narrative and its ensuing controversy illustrates how Hollywood films can simultaneously communicate misleading messages about the history of civil rights activism, and prompt additional discourses about historic racial atrocities within popular culture.

Mississippi Burning was loosely based on events surrounding the disappearance of civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. These activists came to Mississippi in June 1964 as part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, a joint effort of several civil rights organizations to bring over a thousand black and white activists from the North to register blacks to vote across the state. Several months after they disappeared, the men's bullet-riddled bodies were found buried in an earthen dam. Despite strong evidence against several men suspected of involvement in the activists' deaths, no one had been indicted for their murders until a jury found Edgar Ray Killen guilty of manslaughter in 2005.

National broadcast media consistently referred to the 2005 case against Killen as the “Mississippi Burning trial.” Directed by Alan Parker, this movie highlights Southern white brutality against blacks during the civil rights era. Mississippi Burning's plot revolves around the heroic efforts of two fictional FBI detectives ─Rupert Anderson, played by Gene Hackman, and Alan Ward, played by Wilem DeFoe— sent to solve the case of three missing civil rights activists in a fictional town in central Mississippi. Throughout their investigation, the agents encounter resistance from white law enforcement officials and members of the black community who fear reprisal from local whites.

Several scenes feature Klan brutality, including one in which several white men severely beat a young black man who was approached by the FBI for information. These scenes illustrate the dangers that black people faced for daring to speak out for racial justice in Mississippi during the mid-1960s. Toward the end of the film, the FBI agents concluded that lawful operating procedures were not going to be able to bring the activists' murderers to justice. Instead, they tricked and terrorized Klan members to confess their involvement in the activists' deaths. According to the film's own logic, the threats of violence against Klan members were warranted by the Klan's own disregard for the law, and enabled Ward and Anderson to find some justice for the black community.

Although Mississippi Burning evoked the history of the South's racist oppression, it presented a misleading depiction of the central figures in Mississippi's civil rights struggle. The movie's focus on two renegade FBI agents displaced the key individuals and organizations who led Mississippi's civil rights movement during the 1960s. The film never mentioned the names Chaney, Schwerner, or Goodman; nor did it depict events surrounding the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. The motion picture also excluded images of local black citizens who challenged Mississippi's racist policies despite threats that local whites made to their lives and their families. Furthermore, the FBI was not nearly as committed to civil rights as the film indicated. By focusing on fictional white FBI agents in a film about racial injustice, the film offered a white-washed depiction of the civil rights struggle.

Mississippi Burning elicited a variety of responses from the mainstream press. Many newspaper film critics heralded the film for acknowledging racial injustices in recent United States history. But, the press also critiqued the movie for offering a limited or misleading depiction of struggles for racial justice. Several newspaper critics and reporters pointed out that activists, not federal officials, were primarily responsible for ending segregation and securing voting rights for African-Americans.

Mississippi Burning's partial and distorted depiction created an opening for critics to put a public spotlight on racial injustices rarely depicted in popular culture. Some journalists addressed the FBI's quick dismissal of activists' concerns. By drawing attention to the FBI's complicity with Southern law enforcement, these reports indicated that racism was not only a Southern problem, but existed on a broader national scale. These observations suggest that Hollywood's portrayals of historic events may function as vehicles for news media to attend to injustices and inequities that have plagued our nation's history.

The film and its ensuing controversy also created an opening for activists to pursue the cause of justice at the time the film was shown in theaters, particularly because the men involved in the deaths of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were never tried for murder. Mississippi journalist Jerry Mitchell has explained that that the movie inspired him to investigate the unsolved case of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner's murders for the Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi's leading newspaper. Soon thereafter, civil rights leader Myrlie Evers pushed state prosecutors to reopen the case against Byron de la Beckwith for her husband Medgar's 1964 murder. Beckwith's conviction in 1994 gave state prosecutors a reason to reopen many decades-old civil rights cold cases, and enabled subsequent trials and convictions─including Killen's. These convictions illustrate how popular media depictions of historic injustices can inadvertently contribute to legal action in the present and future.

The progressive potential of Mississippi Burning should not be overstated. News articles responding to popular films have the potential to address lingering controversies over atrocities committed during the civil rights era. Given that not all popular movie audiences pay attention to news media reviews of films, this movie's portrayal of white FBI agents as heroes for the civil rights struggle may have done more to reinforce racial stereotypes among some audiences than to promote racial justice.

This analysis points to the different types of conclusions that can be drawn about the role of film in the process of social change. Depending on what we choose to look at, Hollywood can be a source for both reinforcing social biases and inequities, or for thinking more critically about how we might redress historic injustices. Although no media film, program, or newspaper article can fully depict the breadth and depth of the civil rights movement, much more could—and should—be remembered about the ordinary people who have fought for racial justice, the consequences these people faced for standing up for civil rights, and the goals for racial justice that remain to be won.

About the author (s)

Kristen Hoerl

Butler University

Assistant Professor