Examining the Strange World of MISSISSIPPI BURNING
When first released in 1988, MISSISSIPPI BURNING was a shocking film. While the subject of racism and civil rights had long since been the subject of motion pictures, MISSISSIPPI BURNING raised eyebrows because its honest depiction of violence had largely been missing from other serious docudramas. It is important, however, to point out that the acts of violence in the film are not truly what are shocking. It is the environment in which it takes place. That is, many murder mysteries have been set in Los Angeles but they do not point a finger at southern California culture. This is largely because the settings of 90% of these movies could literally take place anywhere. As the title of this film indicates, however, the setting of Mississippi is very critical here. In fact, the film almost infers that outside of the society of 1964 Mississippi the crime depicted in the film possibly could not have taken. Whether this is an accurate sentiment or not (actually, similar crimes occurred all throughout the south for decades) is immaterial. What is important is that the film provides a unique insight into the strange sociological structure that exists in the world that the film takes place. Such a unique perspective requires further examination.
On the surface, it would appear that MISSISSIPPI BURNING is about racism and racial injustice. While this is the core of the film’s themes, there is far more to the study of racial injustice than merely the act of racism. That is, racism exists in all societies. However, the racism in Mississippi circa 1964 (the time period the film is set) was far different than other parts of the United States and the world. In Mississippi, racism was used to define the populace’s place in life. Now, this same definition has been used elsewhere as well. What makes the location of Mississippi more significant is the fact
Examining the Strange World of MISSISSIPPI BURNING – Page 2
that the racial system was put in place and enforced by the state government. So, the main sociological world that this film exists in is not one of “mere” racism. It is about state sponsored racism.
Additionally, the state sought to impose it racist policies on the populace to the point it simply refused to enforce any law that would undermine the racial status quo. That is, while the law in Mississippi may have made segregation legal, the law explicitly forbids murder. However, in the case depicted in the film, it is obvious the local authorities are not interested in solving the murders since the people killed were civil rights workers. As such, this would infer that militarism was in effect that overrode all applicable laws so as to maintain a certain, specific societal order. Such attitudes essentially reveal a world that exists parallel to the rest of the nation as opposed to being part of it. This would indicate a bizarre sociological situation where a parallel society exists while claiming to not be a parallel society. In other words, the residents of this society claim they are not separate from the rest of the nation although they seemingly have set up internal self governing, internal societal rules. These rules essentially create a proverbial powder keg mix of racism, power and authority, and the potential for societal change.
If there was one major “miscue” that the main characters in the film make, it would be the fact that they have a vague understanding of the issue. However, their depth of knowledge on the actual situation is very minimal. As a result, they quickly find themselves in a very dangerous situation because their badges mean nothing in this
Examining the Strange World of MISSISSIPPI BURNING – Page 3
society. After all, if the world of Mississippi circa 1964 creates its own laws and rules, it will not respect the badge of an FBI agent. This is what complicates the plot of the film. The world in which the FBI agents enter is foreign to them. This is somewhat ironic considering the fact that FBI agents are federal agents. That infers their jurisdiction is not limited to a particular state. Yet, in Mississippi, they are almost considered foreign agents and spies. Part of the reason for this is that the agents represent what the populace of Mississippi fear the most: change.
Again, the issues represented in the societal structure of MISSISSIPPI BURNING are the interconnection of racism, power and authority, and societal change. Or, more accurately, there is a battle of societal change vs. a resistance to societal change. In the world depicted in the film, the sociological aspects of this society are dependent of one another. In the film, power and authority are defined by racism. The investigation by the FBI agents shows that the ways of the past will no longer be tolerated. However, at the point in time the film takes place, the investigators possess very limited power. The structure of Mississippi in 1964 was based on racial roles of power. White citizens had more rights than black citizens and the state of Mississippi was enforced by the state. This is a critical point because without the enabling of the state (and minus any opposition from the state) the racism in Mississippi allowed the bases for a unique culture where one race dominated the other. If you were to remove the state sponsored enforcement (and enabling) of this power structure, then the entire culture was at risk of falling apart. Therein exists the greatest fear of the power brokers: societal change. Mississippi did not wish to change.
Examining the Strange World of MISSISSIPPI BURNING – Page 4
Does a solution exist for each issue? As history shows, a number of solutions have been applied in order to break down and destroy the state sponsored violence that allowed the world of MISSISSIPPI BURNING to exist. While it would be impossible to eliminate racism from society completely, but laws that enable the power of racial control can be changed. This will have the end result of providing a solution to the major pressing problems while allowing progress to be made towards marginalizing the sentiment that creates the main problem. That is, by eliminating the state sponsored racism the culture changes to where racism is no longer publicly approved. This makes it incredibly difficult to foster sentiments of racism in the populace for future generations to come. To an extent, this combats the theoretical perspective (world view) that the populace is accustomed to. By undermining this theoretical perspective the ability to acquire true change is possible.
In a way, the events depicted in the film provide a solution in the sense they “got the ball rolling”. In other words, it was the bizarre case presented in the film raised public awareness towards the horrible situation in Mississippi at the time. This allowed for the great expansion of civil rights in the United States. The film, to a degree, had a positive effect as well since it reminded people of the past. It also drew parallels from the past to the present. This opened a dialogue among the movie going public which allowed the potential for further healing. Now, some may wince at this notion and assume that it is an overly positive assessment of the outcome. Actually, it is a realistic assessment. The notion that any one singular instance could change the sociological aspects of Mississippi culture (a culture that had existed in place for well over 100 years) would be an absurdist
Examining the Strange World of MISSISSIPPI BURNING – Page 5
notion. However, a series of incident can work at chipping away at a sociological problem. In the case of MISSISSIPPI BURNING, a single murder investigation created further public awareness that aided in changing the horribly flawed world that existed in this part of the United States.
Through Alan Parker’s direction, we do get a somewhat sentimental ending. VARIETY sharply criticized this approach but it does mention the film does not truly deviate from realism to the point of absurd. So, in essence, the film’s solution does positively echoes the notion that progress is achieved in incremental steps even if it requires the cinematic need for a storybook ending.
MISSISSIPPI BURNING remains a landmark film for its ability to provide a unique insight into the sociological structure of a world that once existed. Perhaps this is why it remains popular two decades after it was originally released. Then again, many of the themes in the film are timeless. This is why the film will remain popular for many more decades to come.
Linder, Douglas O. (2000) “The Mississippi Burning Trial” Retrieved September 26, 2008 from http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/price&bowers/Account.html
Variety Staff. (1988) “Mississippi Burning.” Retrieved September 26, 2008 from http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117793161.html?categoryid=31&cs=1&p=0