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Film / Mississippi Burning

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Mississippi Burning is 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:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: After Anderson sings the Klan song to Ward (see Villain Song below), Ward says he's not laughing because he doesn't share Anderson's sense of humor. However, when Anderson tells him a joke a little later - "What has four eyes and can't see? Mississippi." - Ward does laugh.
  • 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.
  • Audience Murmurs: At the Kangaroo Court scene, the audience reacts with loud murmurs to the judge's words.
  • "Awkward Silence" Entrance: The town bar goes silent when Ward decides to sit down next to one of the blacks.
  • 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.
  • Bigot with a Badge: Most of the local police force belongs to the Klan and is involved in the murders, as in Real Life.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: In public, Pell seems like a reasonable deputy who is just doing his job helping the white and black folks in town. In reality, he's just a hateful, racist Bigot with a Badge who had just participated in the murders of the three Civil Rights workers.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Klansmen get arrested...but they are given really minor sentences. Despite her home being trashed, Pell's wife insists on rebuilding her life. And the final shot, a desecrated graveyard, shows that hatred still burns in the state of Mississippi.
  • Black-and-Gray 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.
  • Book Ends: 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.
  • I Choose to Stay: Despite her home being trashed in retribution for testifying against the Klan, Mrs. Pell insists on staying in town, believing there are enough good people in town who know she did the right thing.
  • Cowboy Cop: Agent Anderson.
  • Dangerously Close Shave: The FBI agent played by Gene Hackman intimidates Clinton Pell - a local deputy sheriff and 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 Mississippi and tackles racism and corrupt hicks.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The film illustrates the Ku Klux Klan-dominated atmosphere of 1960s Mississippi with the antagonists frequently shouting racial slurs and performing cross burnings.
  • Dirty Coward: Pell. The entire film, he makes vague threats, insinuations about how he's untouchable, and basically is a rude, obstructive asshat to everyone who comes into town, especially regarding the case of the missing three civil rights activists. Never once, in the entire film, does he ever show a spine. The moment it becomes clear that someone has the guts to stand up to him, and his boss and the Klan isn't around to protect him, he folds in on himself like a paper bag in the rain. To say nothing of the beatdown he gets from Anderson, who made it clear he'd cut his throat with a razor blade if he felt it was necessary. Many of the other Klansmen are also like this.
  • Driven to Suicide: The Mayor.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Frank Bailey, one of the other Klan members, looks uncomfortable while watching Pell beat his wife.
  • False Flag Operation: After he talks to the feds, Lester gets attacked by fellow supremacists in shrouds, chased out into 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.
  • Good Policing, Evil Policing: The local sheriff's department is in bed with The Klan, while the FBI is trying to bring the racist murderers to justice.
  • 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.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Anderson talks about his own father, who poisoned a black man's mule because he couldn't stand the idea of a black man being better off than him.
  • Groin Attack: Anderson inflicts one on a Klansman.
  • He's Just Hiding: In-Universe, the police who helped murder the three civil rights workers fraudulently claim the kids are hiding out somewhere. This was an actual conspiracy theory proposed by many white supremacists including Mississippi's own Senator James Eastland.
  • 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 each other.
  • 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 despite committing a triple homicide.
  • The Klan: Featured prominently as the villains.
  • 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 of 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 agents disguised as Klansmen in order to scare him into talking.
  • 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 fellow black man by white supremacists. And then he makes moves to perform the same action on the mayor, which gets him to talk.
  • Mighty Whitey: Played straight and averted. 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. They end up saving the day, but equally the movie makes clear that initially no one nationally really cares and to the extent that anyone cares it is because two white northern men were murdered. Blacks in the movie also show suspicion of outsiders and make clear they are more than capable of helping themselves and willing to defend themselves - but with the system against them they encounter set back after set back and the FBI is there to help - very slowly and incompletely - tip the balance more toward them so they can get some justice.
  • "Miss X" Pun: One of the Federal agents tells the other that Mississippi stood for Miss Is Hippie.
  • 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).
  • Obvious Stunt Double: Once Anderson begins beating Pell in the barber shop, it's clear that it's not Brad Dourif in a lot of the shots of him being thrown about the room; when he gets tossed over a bench, a very obviously balding stunt double has replaced the fully-haired Dourif.
  • 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:
    • 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.
    • 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). On the other hand, the FBI would end up disrupting the Klan and its operations with its COINTELPRO program, but that was something that took place shortly after the murders in Mississippi. Upon its release, Coretta Scott King and the NAACP condemned the film for this reason.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The white supremacist villains.
  • Ransacked Room: Pell's house at the end. It is inferred that the "Klan" and their followers trashed her place to tell her she's not welcome anymore after breaking the code of silence.
  • Rousseau Was Right: Despite the above, Pell's wife insists on staying and rebuilding her life, claiming most people in her town are decent enough to acknowledge she did the right thing. She discusses this in an earlier scene.
    Mrs. Pell: It's ugly. This whole thing is so ugly. Have you any idea what it's like to live with all this? People look at us and only see bigots and racists. Hatred isn't something you're born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation was said in the Bible... Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it... you breathe it. You marry it.
  • 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.
  • Tattooed Crook: The Mayor has tattoos on his forearms, probably from military service, and he's a Corrupt Politician.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Anderson and Ward don't like each other, or approve of each other's methods, but they still work together, to the point when the mayor threatens Ward over his investigation, Anderson threatens him right back.
  • 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 pursuit 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 a case of offering a substantial reward, one which Highway Patrolman Maynard King took up, and informed the FBI of the location of the bodies and the perpetrators.
  • 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 his 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. It also happens later to Lester.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Deputy Pell beats up his wife when he finds out that she has helped the FBI.
  • Would Hurt a Child: A Klansman (possibly Frank Bailey) shows no remorse in kicking Aaron down while threatening to kill him if he talks to the FBI again. And this was after Aaron was loudly praying to God for forgiveness. It shows just how evil these racists are.