Recently released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time, Mississippi Burning has always been one of my favorite films. Where Selma took the inside track with Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle and avoided the violence of the era (mostly), Mississippi Burning shows us the regular violence dispensed by the Klu Klux Klan to African Americans in Jessup County, MS, as well as those who might oppose them. When three civil rights workers, one black and two white, go missing, the FBI sends agents Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Anderson (Gene Hackman) to investigate. Their arrival does nothing to appease the situation on either side, but Ward’s determination to find out what happened to the three young men leads to explosive conclusions.
Ward is the by-the-book idealist while Anderson is the rule-breaking agent who figures that the two of them can’t make any kind of lasting difference. It’s one of the powerful dichotomies of the film: it’s not that one of them condones what the KKK is doing, but Anderson thinks that they will just aggravate the situation. In some ways, he’s right. People pay for their investigation with their lives, health, and happiness. But in the end, have they solved the problem?
Peppering the film are people you’ve certainly seen before, but possibly not this young. Brad Dourif (One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest) plays Deputy Pell, one of the key Klansmen who perpetrates violence on whites and blacks alike; Frances McDormand (Blood Simple, Fargo) plays his wife, one of the women who knows too much but is feels powerless to stop it. Stephen Tobolowsky (Deadwood, Heroes) plays a leading Klansman and Michael Rooker (Walking Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy) plays another cop who is also a white supremacist. Badja Djola plays an FBI agent in a pivotal role that stirs the pot, Frankie Faison (The Wire, Banshee) plays a MLK character, Tobin Bell (Saw) plays another FBI agent, and R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket) plays the corrupt mayor. It’s a testament to their acting chops that collaboratively they produced such a masterpiece.
Chris Gerolmo’s script still stirs my soul when I watch it. I’m not going to lie, watching Mississippi Burning or The Power of One make me angry. As I watched this latest time, appreciating the clarity of the Blu-ray transfer, I found myself saddened by the prospect that things … might not be that different today. Whether we like to identify things this way or not, there’s a widespread series of examples where white authority figures are responsible for the death of black men. Set aside the records or previous guilt of those men and consider how many of them died unnecessarily, and unprovoked. Mississippi Burning highlights that racial divide in our country, and asks us what is justice and what we’re going to do about it.
In one of the final scenes, a man is found hanging in his basement, consumed by guilt. He wasn’t directly responsible for any of the deaths, by the characters discuss how his guilt drove him to suicide. “Maybe we’re all guilty,” one remarks, as they cut his body down. Moments later, an FBI agent greets a woman from the town who has become friendly with, unwittingly putting her in harms way. One tried to do good; one avoided doing evil. But both bear the results of their actions and inaction that they will carry with them indefinitely.
Too often, we can throw our hands up in the air and decry the sins of others. The truth is that we should be considering how what we buy, where we spend our money, who we endorse politically, and how we treat the people we know has an impact on the world we live in. If we are growing to be the kingdom of God, then we have to take active, participatory responsibility. It’s not enough to say, “look, there’s evil over there,” and then avoid it. We must be engaged in making all things new, for those we love and even those we don’t.
Editor’s Note: Weeks after I wrote this, a white man shot and killed nine black churchgoers in the midst of a prayer meeting. The Civil Rights “movement” may be over, but our country has a long way to go in eradicating hate. And only love can do that.