Queens College Civil Rights Archives


Search using this query type:

Search only these record types:

Exhibit Page
Simple Page

Advanced Search (Items only)

The Fire in the South



The Fire in the South


"Mississippi Burning" movie review published in Time Magazine.


Civil Rights--Mississippi--History--20th century
Motion pictures--Reviews.


Schickel, Richard




Queens College Department of Special Collections and Archives (New York, N.Y.)



Date Created



This material may be protected by the U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17,U.S.C.). We welcome you to make fair use of the content accessible on this website as defined by copyright law. Please note that you are responsible for determining whether your use is fair and for responding to any claims that may arise from your use.




354 KB





Spatial Coverage



The Fire in the South
Mississippi Burning Directed by Alan Parker
Screenplay by Chris Gerolmo
By Richard Schickel
Why does FBI agent Anderson (Gene Hackman) like baseball? Because, as he keeps telling people in Mississippi Burning, "it's the only game where a black man can wave a stick at a white man without starting a riot. "

Were there in 1964 (or for that matter, have there ever been) FBI men like Anderson,
who does not seem to own a black suit or a snap-brim fedora, who talks like a human being instead of a prerecorded announcement and shuffles slyly rather than striding officiously through an investigation? Were there, have there been, agents like his immediate superior Ward (Willem Dafoe) , hiding a passionate moral (as opposed to a merely legalistic) commitment to the civil rights movement behind a prim manner and a pair of half horn-rims?

Who know s? And, finally, does it matter? For the business of these two agents in
Mississippi, who are never referred to by their first names, is not to typify realistically
an institution, but to represent two basic, conflicting human responses to being cast
by chance in a tragic historical drama. Anderson and Ward are investigating the' disappearance of three civil rights workers, two Northern college students and a local
black- a fictional case obviously inspired by the murders of James Chaney, Andrew
Goodman and Michael Schwerner, workers in the 1964 drive to register black voters
in the Deep South. But the aim of this movie is not purely, or even primarily, documentary. The truth of its testimony is not so much literal as gospel, using that
term in its revivalist sense. Mississippi Burning is a cry of anguish turned into a hymn of desperate hope, a glory shout in which remembered indignities mingle with moral inspiration. murdered by organized racism, then their deaths will be redeemed by martyrdom and justice. The movie argues that Ward's confrontational tactics, which include bringing in a huge investigative task force and attracting excessive national media attention, not only delay progress on the case but also stir more violent crimes in response: beatings, church burning, even a lynching. Anderson, who was once a sheriff in a county like this one, is much more the compassionate pragmatist. He wants a quiet investigation, conducted through sidelong glances, little toe-scuffing chats with the locals and the free play of his instincts. He can kick into angry overdrive with a grin still on his face , and is not above conducting a shy, country-boy
courtship of a key witness (Frances McDormand) to get on with his job, which, as he sees it, is simply to find the criminals, not change the world. Hackman is probably the subtlest screen player of his generation. He is a genius
at hiding his true feelings under humor, letting them show with a seemingly unconscious flicker of expression or an unfinished gesture. Dafoe stands up to him with the kind of flat-voiced certainty mastered only by men of few , but unshakable, principles. Though each learns something from the other, their relationship
retains its pure scratchiness from beginning to end. These guys are never going to be buddies. Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Angel Heart) will never be a better director. He has always had a taste and talent for sudden violence, for making it explode out of ordinary contexts. That talent is well employed in Mississippi Burning: a scene in which a black congregation emerges from an evening prayer meeting to confront
a silent group of hooded Klansmen, clubs at the ready, is a little masterpiece of
But what truly distinguishes this film is Parker's acute reimagining of a time and place. The frightened silence of the black community (and the astonishing courage
of some of its members); the sullen resentment of "outsiders" from the white community; the alternately bland, sneering and self-righteous denials by the local lawmen that any crime was committed at all; the steadily mounting campaign of violence intended to terrorize everyone into complicity in this lie-all of this is handled with a deft and compulsive power. That power finally sweeps away one's
resistance to the film's major improbability. It asks us to believe that the FBI, in
those days still under J. Edgar Hoover's dictatorship, would have mounted an
elaborate sting operation to bring the murderers at last to some rough justice under
federal anticonspiracy statutes. That seems unlikely, especially given Hoover's hatred of Martin Luther King and his allies. Still, narrow historical criticism
somehow seems irrelevant to a movie that so powerfully reanimates the past for
the best of reasons: to inform the spirit of today and
possibly tomorrow.

Original Format

Magazine clipping


Schickel, Richard, “The Fire in the South,” Queens College Civil Rights Archives, accessed May 29, 2022, http://archives.qc.cuny.edu/civilrights/items/show/283.