Saturday, August 8, 2009

My Problem With Mississippi Burning (Contains Spoilers)

This Summer I finally got around to watching the film “Mississippi Burning.” Without a doubt it’s one of the most critically acclaimed and well-known films about the South ever made. It deals with the real life murder in 1964 Mississippi of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish kids from New York. Chaney was a local black kid. The shocking depravity of their murder is one of the black patches in American History.

In the film, Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe play FBI agents who descend upon Mississippi to get to the bottom of what happened. As Howard Zinn has pointed out, the FBI is made to look way too good in this film with regards to the pursuit of racial justice in the USA. But there is other evidence to suggest that something along these lines did in fact occur with FBI agents in Mississippi. Anyway, I think the film is close enough to the historical record to have credibility. A historical narrative has to have some external creation from the artist in order to make it interesting; otherwise it’s just a documentary.

The film received the most praise from Roger Ebert who said “no other movie I've seen captures so forcefully the look, the feel, the very smell, of racism. We can feel how sexy their hatred feels to the racists in this movie, how it replaces other entertainments, how it compensates for their sense of worthlessness. And we can feel something breaking free, the fresh air rushing in, when the back of that racism is broken.”

He is spot on with regards to the portrayal of the racism in MB. You feel the nastiness and the hatred of the whites coming through the screen; and no doubt that was what by and large existed in real life. But after watching the film I just didn’t get “the sense of fresh air rushing in.” This is one of the most graceless films I’ve ever seen. Not graceless in terms of the artistic presentation but in the sense of any hope of conflict resolution and healing. This is not a film Flannery O’Conner would have written. This is a violent clash between Southern racism and the forces of justice. And(spoiler) that Southern racism is ultimately drawn out and overcome with the use of torture by the FBI agents.

That’s my ultimate problem with the film; its glorification of torture. It says “Some people are just so evil you have to torture them to achieve justice.” As someone who has been caustic about the Bush/Cheney torture of terrorist suspects; I can hardly approve of it when it is given justification in this film.

I could go on with other criticisms of this film. The black community is by and large portrayed as helpless wide-eyed victims who live in constant terror of the KKK. A church is burned down; and we see little of the strength, assertiveness, and perseverance of the Black Christianity which sustained MLK and much of the Civil Rights Movement. The only white Missippian portrayed in a positive light is Frances McDormand’s character. Of her Ebert says she is “a woman who had been raised and trained and beaten into accepting her man as her master, and who finally rejects that role simply because with her own eyes she can see that it's wrong to treat black people the way her husband does. The woman McDormand plays is quiet and shy and fearful, but in the moral decision she makes, she represents a generation that finally said, hey, what's going on here is simply not fair.” Agreed, but the movie also says that the awakening to that moral consciousness also involves awakening to the fact that these Southern bigots deserve the same violence thrown back at them; and torture to boot. I just can't accept that world view. If I give into those violent desires that puts me on the same level with those committing the injustice.

I disagree when it is used against Middle Eastern terrorists and I disagree when it is used against Southern racists in this film. Gandhi showed there was a better way to overcoming injustice; so did MLK. Maybe someday the world will catch up with them. While I found the message off-putting, this is an incredibly affective and well done film. The acting from the leads is suburb. The suspense is palpable and sustained throughout. Ultimately the viewer should make up their own mind, I guess.

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