Mississippi Burning (1988)

R | 120 mins | Drama | 9 December 1988

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HISTORY

       An article in the 9 Jan 1989 issue of Time stated that the story was based on the 1964 killings of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman in Neshoba County, MS, but veered from the real-life account with “two main fictional conceits.” While the film portrayed “Mrs. Pell” as the key informant who was seduced by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “Agent Rupert Anderson,” a 4 Dec 1988 NYT article specified that the FBI spent nearly three years and $30,000 to pay off not one, but two Klan informants, whose prison sentences were lessened through plea bargains. Also a departure from the true story, Mississippi Burning depicted “Agent Monk” as an African American “specialist” who was brought in to intimidate “Mayor Tilman” into confessing his knowledge of the crime. As NYT noted, the FBI did not employ African American agents in 1964, and although screenwriter Chris Gerolmo originally wrote the character as a Mafia hit man, director Alan Parker changed his race “as a metaphor for…the assertion of black anger.”
       Gerolmo originally envisioned the film as a “political parable with western overtones” starring William Hurt and Clint Eastwood, as noted in Time. He brought the finished screenplay to his friend, producer Frederick Zollo, who sold it to Orion Pictures. Orion financed the $15 million budget, according to a 24 Jan 1989 LAT article. Directors considered for the project included Milos Forman and John Schlesinger, but Alan Parker was ultimately chosen. Parker clashed with Gerolmo, who was required to be absent from set due to a Writers Guild (WGA) strike during production. A 5 Jun ... More Less

       An article in the 9 Jan 1989 issue of Time stated that the story was based on the 1964 killings of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman in Neshoba County, MS, but veered from the real-life account with “two main fictional conceits.” While the film portrayed “Mrs. Pell” as the key informant who was seduced by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “Agent Rupert Anderson,” a 4 Dec 1988 NYT article specified that the FBI spent nearly three years and $30,000 to pay off not one, but two Klan informants, whose prison sentences were lessened through plea bargains. Also a departure from the true story, Mississippi Burning depicted “Agent Monk” as an African American “specialist” who was brought in to intimidate “Mayor Tilman” into confessing his knowledge of the crime. As NYT noted, the FBI did not employ African American agents in 1964, and although screenwriter Chris Gerolmo originally wrote the character as a Mafia hit man, director Alan Parker changed his race “as a metaphor for…the assertion of black anger.”
       Gerolmo originally envisioned the film as a “political parable with western overtones” starring William Hurt and Clint Eastwood, as noted in Time. He brought the finished screenplay to his friend, producer Frederick Zollo, who sold it to Orion Pictures. Orion financed the $15 million budget, according to a 24 Jan 1989 LAT article. Directors considered for the project included Milos Forman and John Schlesinger, but Alan Parker was ultimately chosen. Parker clashed with Gerolmo, who was required to be absent from set due to a Writers Guild (WGA) strike during production. A 5 Jun 1988 LAT article detailed the conflict between writer and director, noting that Parker claimed to have completely re-written the script after a failed attempt to collaborate on revisions. Gerolmo, who received sole writing credit, described Parker as anti-American and “fascist,” accused him of removing the “lyricism” from his script, and said he aimed to portray all white people as “ugly, oafish, stupid and drunk.”
       According to Time, 300 Southern towns in GA, AL, and AR, were considered as filming locales. However, most of the shooting took place in MS, while Lafayette, AL, was used for small-town exteriors. Principal photography began 7 Mar 1988 after a week of rehearsals, as noted in an 18 Mar 1988 DV news item. According to a 28 Mar 1989 LAHExam article, Parker aimed for a “documentary feel,” and began the shoot with back-to-back night scenes, as stated in production notes in AMPAS library files. Noting that the director wanted “real Southern black faces,” casting director Shari Rhodes scoured the streets of black neighborhoods and nursing homes, and selected homeless men for “walk-ons.” Shooting ended a day and a half ahead of schedule on 14 May 1988.
       Parker explained in production notes that “Agent Alan Ward” had a longer speech in the scene depicting Mayor Tilman’s suicide, but it was edited down so the character would not seem “too preachy.” Parker included the entire speech in production notes, as follows: “Oh, he’s guilty. Anyone’s guilty who watches this happen and pretends it’s not. All of them. Every governor or senator who allows the hate to fester to gather a few votes. Every college kid who ever laughed at a racist joke. Everyone who ever chewed their tongue when they should have spoken up. Mr. Mayor was guilty alright. As guilty as the lunatics who pull the triggers. Maybe we all are.”
       The film’s world premiere took place 2 Dec 1988 in Washington, D.C., followed by a 9 Dec 1988 release in Los Angeles, CA, and New York City, at a total of nine theaters. An 11 Jan 1989 DV article noted that the release was scheduled to expand to 550 theaters on 13 Jan 1989.
       Although critical reception was generally positive, the film suffered a negative backlash for its portrayal of white men as the heroes who fought for African Americans during the civil rights movement. Civil rights activist Coretta Scott King wrote a condemnation of the film in the 13 Dec 1988 LAT titled “Hollywood’s Latest Perversion: The Civil-Rights Era as a White Experience,” while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) accused Mississippi Burning of portraying African Americans as “cowed, submissive, and blank-faced” while glorifying white Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, according to a 25 Jan 1989 Var brief. African American actor Danny Glover also spoke out publicly against the film, as noted in a 19 Jan 1989 LAHExam item, stating that it failed to show the courageous African Americans who stood up against Klansmen.
       Despite the backlash, the film took in $30.5 million in box-office receipts, as stated in the 28 Mar 1989 LAHExam, and was also a “box-office smash” in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the issue of civil rights struck a chord with black viewers oppressed by Apartheid, according to a 7 Jun 1989 LAT brief. Mississippi Burning received several awards, including an Academy Award for Cinematography, and National Board of Review awards for Best Film, Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand), and Best Director. Academy Award nominations included Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role (Gene Hackman), Actress in a Supporting Role (Frances McDormand), Director, Sound, and Film Editing.
       According to a 20 Dec 1989 DV item, Orion’s French video distributor placed “laminated paper KKK masks” in the trade magazine, Video a la Une, to advertise the film’s French video release. Orion executives based in New York City were reportedly “appalled” by the promotion.
       After seeing the film in a Wisconsin theater, a group of African American men attacked a young white man, as stated in a 23 Apr 1993 HR item. One of the men convicted, Todd Mitchell, was originally sentenced to two years in prison; however, the state of Wisconsin later doubled his sentence under a hate crimes statute that allowed for longer sentences applied to crimes motivated by race. Mitchell appealed the increased sentence on the basis of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and the case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against Mitchell.
       Claiming that the character “Sheriff Ray Stuckey” was based on himself, former Neshoba County sheriff Lawrence Rainey sued Orion for $8 million, as reported in a 3 Mar 1989 HR brief. Rainey accused Orion of libel, but the former sheriff later dropped the charges in Aug 1990, according to the Spring 2011 issue of Journalism History, just before Orion’s MS attorney, Jackson Abies III, was expected to call witnesses who could testify to Rainey’s involvement in the murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman.

      End credits contain the following statements: “K. K. K. footage courtesy of U. C. L. A. Film & Television Archive; Additional K. K. K. footage courtesy of 20th Century Fox Film Corp. Inc. & Movietone News, Inc.; Baseball footage courtesy of Major League Baseball Productions; ‘To Tell the Truth’ courtesy of Mark Goodson Productions; and special thanks to Rep. Nicholas Paleologos and Jay S. Harris”; “We would especially like to thank: Governor Ray Mabus; John Horn; Maida Morgan; The Mississippi Film Commission; The Alabama Film Commission; and the people of Mississippi and Alabama for their kind cooperation in the making of this film”; “This film was inspired by actual events which took place in the South during the 1960’s. The characters, however, are fictitious and do not depict real people either living or dead”; and, “Filmed entirely on location in Mississippi and Alabama.”
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SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
18 Mar 1988.
---
Daily Variety
20 Dec 1989.
---
Daily Variety
11 Jan 1989
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Nov 1988
pp. 5-6.
Hollywood Reporter
3 Mar 1989
p. 26, 38.
Hollywood Reporter
23 Apr 1993.
---
Journalism History
Spring 2011
pp. 27-38.
LAHExam
19 Jan 1989.
---
LAHExam
28 Mar 1989
Section B, p. 1, 6.
Los Angeles Times
5 Jun 1988
Calendar, p. 6.
Los Angeles Times
5 Dec 1988
Section G, p. 1, 5.
Los Angeles Times
9 Dec 1988
p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
13 Dec 1988
Section D, p. 7.
Los Angeles Times
24 Jan 1989
Section E, p. 1, 6.
Los Angeles Times
7 Jun 1989
Calendar, p. 2.
New York Times
4 Dec 1988
Section A, p. 15.
New York Times
9 Dec 1988
p. 12.
The Ottawa Citizen
14 Dec 1988
Section F, p. 13.
Time
9 Jan 1989
pp. 56-59.
Variety
30 Nov 1988
p. 12.
Variety
25 Jan 1989.
---
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
Pruitt Taylor Vince
Interviewees:
Fire bombers:
[and]
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
A Frederick Zollo Production
An Alan Parker Film
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
2d 2d asst dir
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Lighting consultant
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
2d cam op
2d cam asst
Spec still photog
Musco light op
Gaffer
Best boy
Key grip
Best boy
Dolly grip
Lighting & grip equip supplied by
Cam cars & cam cranes provided by
Cam cars & cam cranes provided by
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
Asst art dir
Asst art dir
Art dept asst
Art dept asst
FILM EDITORS
1st asst ed
2d asst ed
Apprentice ed
Negative cutter
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Prop master
Asst props
Asst props
Asst set dec
Leadman
Key set dresser
Set dresser
Set dresser
Set dresser
Greens consultant
Scenic artist
Standby scenic artist
Set painter
Set painter
Sign painter
Asst sign painter
Const coord
Const foreman
Const gang boss
Const gang boss
Const gang boss
COSTUMES
Asst cost des
Ward supv
Ward supv
Ward supv
Ward supv
Ward asst
Ward asst
Ward asst
Cost dyer/Painter
MUSIC
Orig mus
Mus eng
Gospel mus consultant
ADR voice casting
SOUND
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Supv sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Asst sd ed
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff coord
Spec eff asst
Spec eff asst
Spec eff asst
Film titles
MAKEUP
Hair des by
Makeup des
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Casting
Supv loc mgr
Prod coord
Loc casting
Asst to Mr. Parker
Scr supv
Prod auditor
Asst auditor
Asst auditor
Asst prod coord
Office coord
Asst to Mr. Zollo
Asst to Mr. Colesberry
Asst loc mgr
Loc asst
Loc mgr, Alabama
Loc asst, Alabama
Loc asst, Alabama
Loc asst, Mississippi
Loc asst, Mississippi
Transportation coord
Transportation capt
Dispatcher
Picture car coord
Picture car asst
Picture car asst
Prod accountant
Unit pub
Set prod asst
Set prod asst
Set prod asst
Loc casting asst
Loc casting asst
Loc casting asst
Loc casting asst
Craft service
Craft service
Animal wrangler
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
STAND INS
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt coord
SOURCES
SONGS
"Take My Hand, Precious Lord," words and music by Thomas A. Dorsey, performed by Mahalia Jackson, courtesy of CBS Records
"Making Believe," words and music by Jimmy Work, performed by Kitty Wells, courtesy of MCA Records
"Try Jesus," words and music by Roberta Martin, performed by Vesta Williams
+
SONGS
"Take My Hand, Precious Lord," words and music by Thomas A. Dorsey, performed by Mahalia Jackson, courtesy of CBS Records
"Making Believe," words and music by Jimmy Work, performed by Kitty Wells, courtesy of MCA Records
"Try Jesus," words and music by Roberta Martin, performed by Vesta Williams
"When We All Get To Heaven," music by Emily D. Wilson, words by Eliza E. Hewitt, performed by Lannie Spann McBride, Barbara Gibson, Alisa R. Patrick
"Walk On Faith," words and music by James Cleveland, performed by Lannie Spann McBride.
+
DETAILS
Release Date:
9 December 1988
Premiere Information:
World premiere: 2 December 1988 in Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles and New York openings: 9 December 1988
Production Date:
7 March--14 May in Mississippi and Alabama
Copyright Claimant:
Orion Pictures Corporation
Copyright Date:
11 April 1989
Copyright Number:
PA409351
Physical Properties:
Sound
Spectral Recording Dolby Stereo SR™ in selected theatres
Color
Lenses/Prints
Lenses and Panaflex® Camera by Panavision®; Prints by DeLuxe®
Duration(in mins):
120
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
29473
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In 1964 Mississippi, three young civil rights activists – one of whom is African American – drive through Jessup County at night. Three cars pursue and run them off the road. Approaching the boys’ car, the pursuers shine flashlights in their faces. One of the men, a police officer, accuses the driver of speeding and uses racial epithets to refer to him and his companions. Another man sniffs the driver and says he smells like an African American, then shoots him in the head. All three are killed, and the men laugh and congratulate themselves afterward. The boys are reported missing, and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents Alan Ward and Rupert Anderson are assigned to the case. They get to know each other on the drive to Jessup County, and Anderson, a native of Mississippi, irritates Ward with his joking comments about the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a secret white supremacist organization. Although Anderson insists on calling him “Boss,” Ward says he was only put in charge because he worked on a civil rights case in Oxford, Missisippi. At the Jessup County police station, the agents meet Deputy Clinton Pell, who jokes that FBI stands for “Federal Bureau of Integration.” Sheriff Ray Stuckey introduces himself, and they discuss the three missing boys, who were arrested for speeding by Deputy Pell and held from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on June 21st. As he and Anderson leave, Ward wonders why the boys did not make a phone call from jail, as they were activists who had been trained to follow such protocol. Anderson defends Sheriff Stuckey, saying he used to be a sheriff, himself, and never lied. At a ... +


In 1964 Mississippi, three young civil rights activists – one of whom is African American – drive through Jessup County at night. Three cars pursue and run them off the road. Approaching the boys’ car, the pursuers shine flashlights in their faces. One of the men, a police officer, accuses the driver of speeding and uses racial epithets to refer to him and his companions. Another man sniffs the driver and says he smells like an African American, then shoots him in the head. All three are killed, and the men laugh and congratulate themselves afterward. The boys are reported missing, and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents Alan Ward and Rupert Anderson are assigned to the case. They get to know each other on the drive to Jessup County, and Anderson, a native of Mississippi, irritates Ward with his joking comments about the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a secret white supremacist organization. Although Anderson insists on calling him “Boss,” Ward says he was only put in charge because he worked on a civil rights case in Oxford, Missisippi. At the Jessup County police station, the agents meet Deputy Clinton Pell, who jokes that FBI stands for “Federal Bureau of Integration.” Sheriff Ray Stuckey introduces himself, and they discuss the three missing boys, who were arrested for speeding by Deputy Pell and held from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on June 21st. As he and Anderson leave, Ward wonders why the boys did not make a phone call from jail, as they were activists who had been trained to follow such protocol. Anderson defends Sheriff Stuckey, saying he used to be a sheriff, himself, and never lied. At a busy diner, Ward takes a free seat in the “colored” section while white patrons stare him down. He attempts to speak with Hollis, a young African American man, about the missing boys, but Hollis leaves the table. Later, discussing the case with Anderson, Ward recalls that the missing boys originally came to Jessup to set up a voter registration clinic at a church. However, the KKK stopped them by burning the church down. The night they went missing, the boys were returning to apologize to the congregation. Despite Anderson’s insistence that African American locals will refuse to talk to them, he accompanies Ward to the home of an older man who was burned in the church fire. His wife explains that he was attacked by four white men outside the burning building, and although she told the three civil rights activists about the attack, she refuses to identify the men again. That night, Hollis, the young man at the diner, is severely beaten by three white men who warn him not to talk to the FBI. As they study pictures of the missing boys at their motel, Anderson tells Ward a story about his father, who sabotaged a prosperous African American farmer by poisoning his mule and eventually ran him out of the state. He says that, like other bigots, his father’s need to feel better than African Americans stemmed from his own poverty. A rock crashes through their motel window and the agents discover a burning cross outside. Although Anderson discourages him, Ward requests more FBI agents from Washington, D.C. headquarters, and sets up an office at a defunct theater in the middle of town. Ward and Anderson discover that Clayton Townley, a local businessman, is the “Grand Wizard” of the local KKK. Meanwhile, FBI Agent Bird gets word that the boys’ car has been found on a Native American reservation. There, as the car is towed out of a swamp, Ward tells Bird they need 100 more men to search the swamp for bodies. Again, Anderson discourages Ward, insisting he will “start a war” by bringing in more people. At night, masked KKK members set fire to African American churches, schools and homes in Jessup, attacking the people inside. The following day, at the site of one of the burned-down churches, a young boy named Aaron Williams addresses fellow parishioners with a hopeful speech about race equality. People scatter as Ward and Anderson approach, but Aaron and his father, Vertis, remain behind. Although they do not reveal much, Aaron suggests the FBI agents take a closer look at local police. Ward and Anderson visit Deputy Pell’s home that night. As Ward goes over Pell’s whereabouts on June 21st, Anderson follows his wife, Mrs. Pell, into the kitchen and flirts with her. Leaving the house, Ward tells Anderson that Pell’s alibi includes a fifteen-minute period that only Mrs. Pell can confirm. Anderson says he noticed a wedding picture inside the house in which Pell’s groomsmen are flashing a KKK symbol. Later, Anderson brings flowers to Mrs. Pell at home and asks about the fifteen-minute window that Deputy Pell claims he spent with her on June 21st. Mrs. Pell attests to it. Elsewhere, the KKK attacks an African American congregation as they leave church. One of the Klansmen kicks Aaron as he prays and warns him to stop talking to the FBI. Although Jessup is a dry county, Anderson locates a secret bar frequented by Deputy Pell and his friends. There, a man named Frank Bailey warns Anderson that the boys will never be found. Anderson responds by grabbing Bailey’s groin until he falls to the floor, then asks Pell if he ever shoots people. After hearing reports of the incident, Ward reprimands Anderson for his unprofessional tactics. Staking out the police station, they watch as Pell releases a young African American man from custody and a truck full of KKK members drives up to kidnap him. Ward and Anderson wait to pursue the truck until Stuckey and Pell have gone back inside. Although a crossing train holds the agents back, they eventually find the African American boy wounded in a forest. The next day, Ward identifies Stuckey and Pell’s pattern, saying that on June 21st, they held the civil rights activists at the police station until KKK members could be organized for an attack. Anderson believes Pell was present for the murders, and they question him again, but the deputy remains steadfast, denying his affiliation with the Klan. When another house is burned down, Aaron helps Ward and Anderson identify the attackers. The men are tried and found guilty, but the judge claims their crimes were provoked and suspends their sentences. In retaliation, the KKK sets fire to Aaron’s family farm and lynches his father. As Clayton Townley leads a KKK gathering under the guise of a “political rally,” Anderson finds Mrs. Pell at the beauty parlor where she works. Crying over the hatred she was taught as a child, Mrs. Pell confesses that her husband took part in the missing boys’ murders and identifies the spot where their bodies are buried. Anderson embraces her and they kiss. The next afternoon, the bodies are found. At Stuckey’s urging, Deputy Pell returns home to beat his wife, as Frank and two other Klansmen look on. After seeing Mrs. Pell in the hospital, Ward agrees to help go after Deputy Pell. An FBI specialist is called in to pose as an African American local. Wearing a Klan mask, he kidnaps Mayor Tilman, who is close friends with Stuckey, and threatens to castrate him. The mayor names Pell and Frank Bailey as the boys’ murderers, and says five others were involved in the crime, including Stuckey, who was not present but helped. Because a local judge will never convict them, Anderson and Ward aim to indict the men on civil rights violations so they will be tried by a Federal court. Later, they manipulate another confession from Lester Cowens, a Klansman who admits to shooting the African American activist in the buttocks but denies killing him. Later, Anderson and Ward find Pell at a barbershop, where Ward allows them privacy so that Anderson can beat the deputy. That night, Cowens is kidnapped and hanged by men in KKK masks, but FBI agents intervene and save him. Although his attackers were secretly FBI agents, Cowens believes the KKK has turned on him and provides a full confession. Deputy Pell, Frank Bailey, and Clayton Townley are arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for violation of civil rights laws. Lester Cowens is sentenced to three years, and the other men at the scene of the crime, Floyd Swilley and Wesley Cooke, are sentenced to seven years. Sheriff Stuckey is acquitted, and Mayor Tilman commits suicide. Anderson visits Mrs. Pell at her home, which has been destroyed. He asks what she plans to do, and she says she will stay in Jessup, claiming that enough people believe she did the right thing. Before they leave town, Ward and Anderson attend a funeral for the African American activist, whose headstone has already been desecrated. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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