Film / Mississippi Burning

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A 1988 film directed by Alan Parker and very loosely based on the investigation of the murders of three civil rights activists in 1964 Mississippi. Two FBI officers (Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe) must work their way through a hotbed of county-wide lies and deceit, with little support from citizens, to solve the murders.


This film provides examples of:

  • Answer Cut: After just another Klan raid on the black community, Ward is desperate and asks Anderson what he would do. The latter smiles. Cut to the next scene of an arranged meeting with the black boy who successfully persuades his friend into helping identify the culprits.
  • Artistic Licence History: It seems very unlikely that whites in 1964 Mississippi would sit and eat in the same restaurant with blacks — even allowing for segregated sections. Black folks couldn't come in and sit down and order a meal. The most they could do was to order food for carry-out, and then stand at the end of the lunch counter and wait to receive it.
  • Audience Murmurs: At the Kangaroo Court scene, the audience reacts with loud murmurs to the judge's words.
  • Badass Bookworm: Agent Ward.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Sadly subverted with the attacks on the black community, as none of the FBI agents are able to prevent these attacks.
  • Bookends: The movie starts and ends with a gospel song.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: Apparently Lester lost it during his faux hanging.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Discussed when the Mayor hangs himself.
    Agent Bird: I don't understand why he did it. He wasn't in on it. He wasn't even Klan.
    Agent Ward: Mr. Bird, (The Mayor) was guilty. Anyone's guilty who lets these things happen and pretends like it isn't. No, he was guilty all right. Just as guilty as the fanatics who pulled the trigger. Maybe we all are.
  • By-the-Book Cop: Agent Ward, until Mrs. Pell's beating convinces him that playing by the book won't lead to justice.
  • Chirping Crickets: The bar goes silent when Ward decides to sit down next to one of the blacks.
  • Cowboy Cop: Agent Anderson.
  • Dangerously Close Shave: The FBI agent played by Gene Hackman intimidates a member of The Klan who was getting a shave by replacing the barber.
  • Danger Takes a Backseat: How they kidnap the Mayor in his car.
  • Deep South: The film is set in the deep south and tackles racism and Corrupt Hicks.
  • Driven to Suicide: The Mayor.
  • False Flag Operation: After he talks to the feds, Lester gets attacked by fellow supremacists in shrouds, chased out in to the woods, and strung up. The FBI agents arrive just in time, chase off the attackers, and save him, telling him he was lucky he was being monitored. They convince him they won't always get there in the nick of time, and that he'd better testify against the others and receive protection from the government. Of course, the attackers are feds in disguise.
  • Grey and Black Morality: Toward the end, once the FBI adopts Anderson's preferred tactics, we get some gray shades into an otherwise overly black and white morality scheme.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: The headshot in the opening scene is not shown directly. All we see is the blood splattering on the co-driver's face.
  • Groin Attack: Anderson inflicts one on a Klansman.
  • High-Heel–Face Turn: Deputy Pell's wife informs on The Klan. She gets beaten up for it, but survives.
  • If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him: Ward warns Anderson to not go after Clinton Pell who just beat the hell out of his wife for ratting out the location of the bodies.
    Ward: I'm telling you to stop. We're not killers. The difference between them and us.
  • It's Personal: Agent Anderson loses his cool after Mrs. Pell, to whom he was attracted, is beaten by The Klan for being an informant.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Anderson applies this technique in order to get his suspects to talk. Ward is not fond of this approach as coercion wouldn't hold up in court. But it turns out Anderson only uses the testimonies to play the Klan members against another.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: Justified, because many of the cops are in league with the Ku Klux Klan
  • Kangaroo Court: Several Klansmen are tried for arson in a local court that has no intention of imposing any real punishment for the crime.
  • Karma Houdini: Sheriff Stuckey manages to be acquitted in Federal Court in the conviction montage at the end of the movie. And none of the others get more than ten years in prison.
  • The Klan: Featured prominently.
  • Kick Them While They Are Down: There is a Kick the Dog moment during the nightly attack on the church members. One of the Klan members kicks the black boy while the latter lies wailing on the ground.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The crooked mayor (played by R. Lee Ermey) gets this in the form a black FBI informant who after telling him the story of a teenager who was castrated by a couple of Klansmen, threatens to castrate him if he doesn't talk. Lester Cowans almost is lynched by his fellow Klansmen who think he will talk. It was actually FBI disguised as Klansmen in order to scare him into talking.
  • Legitimate Businessmen's Social Club: Anderson discovers a hangout where some local men are drinking beer. When he orders one, the crooked sheriff's deputy tells him, "You have to be a member to drink here." The FBI agent asks, "A member o' what?" The deputy replies, "The social club," but it's obvious to everyone (including the audience) that he really means the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Let Me Tell You a Story: The Scary Black Man intimidates the kidnapped mayor by telling him a story about the violent castration of a black fellow man by white supremacists. And then he makes moves to perform the same action on the mayor which gets him to talk.
  • Mighty Whitey: The two FBI agents who come in to speak on the behalf of those oppressed and end up bringing national attention to the situation in the South. In truth, the civil rights movement in the area was already thriving and FBI agents investigated the Klan only under heavy pressure from the President.
  • Mohs Scale of Violence Hardness: It rates a 7, mainly for the bloody headshot at the beginning. The rest of the violence in the movie is tamer, but still quite brutal.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Many of Ward's well-intentioned, by-the-book actions early in the film make the white population of Jessup County feel angry and threatened, which only makes matters worse for the black community. Anderson calls him out on this, to no avail (at least initially).
  • Odd Couple: The two agents have a different approach to their police work which creates friction between them.
  • Old Cop, Young Cop: Anderson and Ward, although Ward is apparently Anderson's superior.
  • Politically Correct History: FBI agents as heroes to the Civil Rights Movement. As most historians know, J. Edgar Hoover was no fan of the movement in Real Life and the agency in fact took several notable measures to undermine and sabotage the movement (although individual agents as depicted here, of course, may have had differing views on the situation).
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The supremacist villains.
  • Ransacked Room: Pell's house at the end. It is inferred that the "Clan" and their followers trashed her place to tell her she's not welcome anymore after breaking the code of silence.
  • Scary Black Man: The FBI brings in a professional Scary Black Man to intimidate the corrupt mayor into revealing who committed a hate crime.
  • The Sheriff: Jessup County's sheriff does not appreciate FBI interference in his county's affairs, since he's in league with the Klan himself.
  • Smug Snake: All of the Klan members, who despite being cocky and dismissive of the FBI, start cracking as the FBI pours on the pressure.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The lovely hymn "When We All Get To Heaven", played over the scenes of yet another vicious Klan attack.
  • Southern Gothic: While nothing supernatural is going on, the film has such a heavy and oppressive atmosphere that at times it borders on becoming a southern gothic.
  • Stoic Spectacles: Agent Ward.
  • Stopped Clock: Ward mentions in passing that they found a wristwatch in the car which stopped at 12:45.
  • Tantrum Throwing: The Scary Black Man throws a coffee cup against the wall during his interrogation of the mayor.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Three people were murdered and half the townspeople are in on it.
  • Train Escape: The two FBI agents are cut off by a train during their pursue of some Klan members. The delay causes them to arrive late to prevent the mutilation of the black boy in the forest.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film is Inspired By the murder of voting rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman by the Ku Klux Klan. The similarities to the real murder case end there. For example, in the movie they bring in a special black agent who threatens to castrate the mayor to get him to tell where the bodies are located. In reality, it was an Italian member of the mafia who got the KKK to talk.
  • Villain Song: Anderson playfully sings a Klan song while he and Ward drive into Mississippi.
    Now, I'm listening you communists, niggas and jews
    Tell all your buddies to spread the news
    Cause the day of judgement will soon been nigh
    As the lord in this wisdom looks down from high
    Will his battle be lost by mixing the races
    We want beautiful babies, not ones with brown faces
    Never, never, never, never, I say
    Cause the Ku Klux Klan is here to stay:
    Never, never, never, never, I say
    Cause the Ku Klux Klan is here to stay:
    Anderson: I hope these Ku Kluxers are better at lynchings than they are at lyrics.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The Klan appears to be this among the white citizens of Jessup County, although Mrs. Pell probably isn't the only one who doesn't like the violence but is too frightened to speak up.
  • Vomiting Cop: When seeing the buried bodies at the dam, one of the agents steps aside and vomits.
  • Window Pain: The Klan sends a message to the two agents by shooting a hole into the window of their apartment. Same happens later to Lester.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Deputy Pell beats up his wife when he finds out that she has helped the FBI.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Film/MississippiBurning