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Mississippi Burning

Mississippi Burning
File:Mississippi Burning.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Alan Parker
Produced by Frederick Zollo
Robert F. Colesberry
Written by Chris Gerolmo
Starring Gene Hackman
Willem Dafoe
Music by Trevor Jones
Cinematography Peter Biziou
Edited by Gerry Hambling
Distributed by Orion Pictures
Release dates
  • December 9, 1988 (1988-12-09)
Running time
128 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $34,603,943[1]

Mississippi Burning is a 1988 American crime thriller film directed by Alan Parker and written by Chris Gerolmo. It was loosely based on the FBI investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers in the U.S. state of Mississippi in 1964. The film focuses on the professional relationship between two FBI agents portrayed by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe who investigate the murders. Hackman's character of agent Rupert Anderson, and Dafoe's part of agent Alan Ward, are loosely based on the partnership of FBI agents John Proctor and Joseph Sullivan.

The film also features Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, and Gailard Sartain in supporting roles. It won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and was nominated in a number of other categories including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Filming locations included a number of locales in central Mississippi and LaFayette, Alabama.


In 1964, three civil rights workers who organize a voter registry for minorities in Jessup County Mississippi, go missing. The FBI sends two agents, Rupert Anderson (Hackman) and Alan Ward (Dafoe) to investigate. The pair find it difficult to conduct interviews with the local townspeople, as Sheriff Stuckey (Sartain) and his deputies exert influence over the public and are linked to a branch of the Ku Klux Klan.

File:Cross Lighting 2005.jpg
The burning of a cross, similar to scenes depicted in the film.

The wife (McDormand) of Deputy Sheriff Clinton Pell (Dourif), reveals to Anderson in a discreet conversation that the missing civil rights trio have been murdered, with their bodies buried in an earthen dam. Sheriff Stuckey deduces her confession to the FBI and informs Sheriff Pell, who beats her in retribution. Anderson and Ward devise a plan to indict members of the Klan for the murders.

They arrange for a kidnapping of mayor Tilman (Ermey), taking him to a remote shack. There, he is left with a black man (Djola) who threatens to castrate him unless he talks. The abductor is an FBI operative utilized to intimidate the mayor. The mayor gives the operative a full description of the killings, including the names of those involved. Although his statement isn't admissible in court due to coercion, his information proves valuable to the investigators.

Anderson and Ward exploit the new information to concoct a plan, luring identified KKK collaborators to a bogus meeting. The Klan members soon realize it's a set up, and leave without discussing the murders. The FBI who are eavesdropping, concentrate on Lester Cowens (Vince), a Klansman of interest who exhibits a nervous demeanor which the agents believe might yield a confession. The FBI pick him up and interrogate him. Later, Cowens is at home when his window is blown out. He looks out to see a burning cross on the lawn. Cowens tries to flee in his truck but is caught by a number of hooded men, who begin to hang him. The FBI developed the ruse, arriving to rescue Cowens, while pretending to chase away the conspirators who are in fact other FBI agents.

Cowens, believing that his KKK henchmen have threatened his life due to his admissions with the FBI, speaks to the agents and incriminates his accomplices. They charge the Klansmen with civil rights violations to gain prosecution at the federal level. Most of the perpetrators are found guilty and receive sentences ranging from three to ten years in prison. Mayor Tilman is later found dead by the FBI in an apparent suicide.


File:Willem Dafoe Cannes 2014.jpg
Actor Willem Dafoe who portrayed FBI agent Alan Ward.



File:FBI Poster of Missing Civil Rights Workers.jpg
Missing persons poster created by the FBI in 1964, showing the photographs of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, whom the film story is based on.

Mississippi Burning was based on the historical events related to the murders of three Mississippi civil rights workers, the investigation into their disappearance, and the prosecution of suspects. The production does not give the real names of the murderers, due to legal considerations. Mississippi Burning does not name the victims who are referred to as "the Boys" in the film.[2] In the film credits, they are identified as "Goatee", based on Michael Schwerner played by Geoffrey Nauffts; "Passenger", based on Andrew Goodman portrayed by Rick Zieff; and "Black Passenger", based on James Chaney depicted by Christopher White.

The film presents Clinton Pell's wife as the informant. However, the identity of the historic informant, known as "Mr. X.", was a closely held secret for 40 years. In the process of reopening the case, journalist Jerry Mitchell and teacher Barry Bradford discovered his real name.[3] They claim the informant who revealed the location of the civil rights workers' bodies was highway patrolman Maynard King, who willingly told FBI agent Joseph Sullivan.[3] According to Cartha DeLoach, the FBI paid for its first big break in the case, which was the location of the bodies. In his memoirs, he describes the men only as "a minister and a member of the highway patrol". DeLoach does not say how the two men knew the three civil rights workers had been buried under twelve feet of dirt in an earthen dam on a large farm a few miles outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, but he did say the FBI paid $30,000 for the piece of crucial information.[4]


Box office

Mississippi Burning opened modestly at the U.S. box office in fifth place, grossing $3,545,305 in its first wide weekend in release.[5] It eventually went on to gross an estimated $34,603,943 in revenue domestically.[6] For 1988 as a whole, the film would cumulatively rank at a box office performance position of 33.[7]

Home media

The Region 1 Code widescreen edition of the film was released on DVD in the U.S. on May 8, 2001. Special features for the DVD include; the director's audio commentary; an original theatrical trailer; English and French stereo surround options; along with French and Spanish subtitles.[8] Currently, there is no set date for either a Blu-ray Disc or Video on demand release for the film.


Critical response

Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 89% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 18 reviews, with an average score of 6.4/10.[9] At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average out of 100 to critics' reviews, Mississippi Burning received a score of 65 based on 11 reviews.[10] The film has been criticized by some for its fictionalization of history.[11][12][13] In Time magazine, author Jack E. White referred to the film as a "cinematic lynching of the truth".[14] Parker defended his film by reminding critics that it was a dramatization, not a documentary. It was also criticized for its portrayal of southern African Americans as passive victims, which also shapes the film's reenactment of the assassinations.[15]

Parker, the director, doesn’t use melodrama to show how terrified the local blacks are of reprisals; he uses realism. We see what can happen to people who are not “good nigras.” The Dafoe character approaches a black man in a segregated luncheonette and asks him questions. The black refuses to talk to him – and still gets beaten by the klan.

On his take of the film, noted film critic Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times surmised, "We knew the outcome of this case when we walked into the theater. What we may have forgotten, or never known, is exactly what kinds of currents were in the air in 1964." In positive acclaim, he declared the motion picture to be "the best American film of 1988".[16] Columnist Desson Howe of The Washington Post believed the film "speeds down the complicated, painful path of civil rights in search of a good thriller. Surprisingly, it finds it". He felt the film was a "Hollywood-movie triumph that blacks could have used more of during – and since – that era."[17] However, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader, lightly criticized director Parker, commenting that the film was "sordid fantasy" being "trained on the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, and the feast for the self-righteous that emerges has little to do with history, sociology, or even common sense."[18]


The film was nominated and won several awards in 1989–90.[19]

Award Category Nominee Result
1989 61st Academy Awards[20] Best Picture Frederick Zollo, Robert F. Colesberry Nominated
Best Actor Gene Hackman Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Frances McDormand Nominated
Best Director Alan Parker Nominated
Best Sound Mixing Robert J. Litt, Elliot Tyson, Rick Kline, Danny Michael Nominated
Best Film Editing Gerry Hambling Nominated
Best Cinematography Peter Biziou Won
1989 Annual ACE Eddie Awards Best Edited Feature Film (Dramatic) Gerry Hambling Won
1989 Annual ASC Awards Best Edited Feature Film Gerry Hambling Nominated
1989 39th Berlin International Film Festival[21] Best Actor Gene Hackman Won
Best Director Alan Parker Nominated
1990 43rd British Academy Film Awards Sound Bill Phillips, Danny Michael, Robert J. Litt, Elliot Tyson, Rick Kline Won
Cinematography Peter Biziou Won
Editing Gerry Hambling Won
Direction Alan Parker Nominated
Original Film Score Trevor Jones Nominated
British Society of Cinematographers Best Cinematography Peter Biziou Won
Casting Society of America Best Casting for a Drama Film Howard Feuer, Juliet Taylor Won
1989 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Picture ———— Won
Best Supporting Actress Frances McDormand Won
Best Actor Gene Hackman Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Brad Dourif Nominated
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Actor Gene Hackman Nominated
Best Foreign Film Alan Parker Nominated
1989 Directors Guild of America Awards Directorial Achievement Alan Parker Nominated
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards 1988 Best Supporting Actress Frances McDormand Won
1988 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Actor Gene Hackman Won
1989 46th Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture Drama ———— Nominated
Best Director Alan Parker Nominated
Best Actor in a Drama Gene Hackman Nominated
Best Screenplay Chris Gerolmo Nominated
National Board of Review Awards 1988 Best Film ———— Won
Best Director Alan Parker Won
Best Actor Gene Hackman Won
Best Supporting Actress Frances McDormand Won
Top Ten Film ———— Won
1988 National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actor Gene Hackman Won
1988 New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Film ———— Nominated
Best Actor Gene Hackman Nominated
1990 Political Film Society Awards Human Rights ———— Won

See also

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  1. ^ "Mississippi Burning (1988)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2014-10-26. 
  2. ^ "Barry Bradford and The Reopening Of Mississippi Burning Case | Speaking For A Change". Retrieved 2013-11-27. 
  3. ^ a b Jerry Mitchell, Clarion Ledger. "Mr. X: 'Unsung Hero' In Slaying Of 3 Men". Internet Archive. Retrieved 2012-03-30. 
  4. ^ Cartha D. Deloach (June 25, 1995). Hoover’s F. B. I.: The Inside Story by Hoover’s Trusted Lieutenant (First ed.). Regnery Publishing, Inc. ISBN 978-0895264794. 
  5. ^ "January 27-29, 1989 Weekend". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2014-10-27. 
  6. ^ "Mississippi Burning". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2014-10-27. 
  7. ^ "1988 DOMESTIC GROSSES". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2014-10-26. 
  8. ^ "Mississippi Burning (1988) - DVD". Barnes & Noble. Retrieved 2014-11-04. 
  9. ^ "Mississippi Burning". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved January 9, 2013. 
  10. ^ "Mississippi Burning". Metacritic. Retrieved 2014-10-26. 
  11. ^ Toplin, Robert Brent (1996). History by Hollywood: the use and abuse of the American past. University of Illinois Press. pp. 26–27. ISBN 0-252-06536-0. 
  12. ^ Zinn, Howard (1990). Passionate declarations: essays on war and justice. Harper Collins. pp. 249–251. ISBN 0-06-055767-2. 
  13. ^ Zinn, Howard. "Federal Bureau of Intimidation". History is a Weapon. Retrieved 2011-03-12. 
  14. ^ White, Jack E. (January 9, 1989). "Show Business: Just Another Mississippi Whitewash". Time Magazine.  White's review is quoted in Roman, James (2009). Bigger Than Blockbusters: Movies That Defined America. ABC-CLIO. p. 274. ISBN 9780313087400. 
  15. ^ "Speaking For A Change | American History Speaker/Scholar". 2013-10-17. Retrieved 2013-11-27. 
  16. ^ a b "Mississippi Burning". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2014-10-26. 
  17. ^ "Mississippi Burning (R)". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-10-26. 
  18. ^ "Mississippi Burning (R)". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 2014-10-26. 
  19. ^ "Mississippi Burning (1988): Awards & Nominations". MSN Movies. Retrieved 2014-10-26. 
  20. ^ "The 61st Academy Awards (1989) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2013-11-27. 
  21. ^ "Berlinale: 1989 Prize Winners". Retrieved 2011-03-12. 

Further reading

  • Cagin, Seth; Dray, Philip (1988). We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi. Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 289, 290, 294 & 295. ISBN 0-02-520260-X. 
  • Ranalli, Ralph (July 28, 2001). Deadly Alliance: The FBI's Secret Partnership with the Mob. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780380811939. 
  • Spain, David M.D. (1964). "Mississippi Autopsy" (PDF). Ramparts Magazine's Mississippi Eyewitness. pp. 43 – 49. 

External links