Secondly, Mississippi burning, which I watched mainly because I love Gene Hackman, but which was a bizarre film. This is apparently based on historical events, following an FBI investigation into the disappearance of three civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964. I think the first hour of the film included approximately six lines spoken by black people, mostly variations on a theme of ‘Please sir, I don’t want to get in trouble’. The one proud statement from a black entire film contains precisely two (actually, more like one and a half) black characters who are not cowed and terrified: the preacher at the funeral for the black civil rights activist (unnamed – the three civil rights activists are credited as: Goatee, Passenger, and Black Passenger. Whiteness is invisible, of course). His eulogy is pretty cool:
They want me to say, “Let us not forget that two white boys also died helping negros help themselves.” They want me to say, “We mourn with the mothers of these two white boys.” But the state of Mississippi won’t even allow these white boys to be buried in the same cemetary as this negro boy. I say, “I have no more love to give! I have only anger in my heart today, and I want you to be angry with me! That I am sick and I am tired, and I want you to be sick and tired with me! I am sick and tired of going to the funerals of black men who have been murdered by white men! And I am sick and tired of the people of this counrty who continue to allow these things to happen!” What is an unalienable right if you are a negro? What does it mean, Equal Treatment under the law? What does it mean, Liberty and justice for all? Now I say to these people, “Look at the face of this young man, and you will see the face of a black man. But if you look at the blood shed, it is red! It is like yours! It is just like yours!”
The other is a black child who speaks to the FBI men about the murder of the activists, and is repaid when the Klan attack his church. The kid’s response is not to run, but to drop to his knees and pray – and so get beaten badly. How spiritual.
But the bizarrest section of this film comes at the end when Willem Dafoe’s young East Coast investigator – a stickler for Bureau procedure, who has been shown not to understand the ways of these Southern folk – finally agrees to follow his colleague Gene Hackman’s lead and tear up the rule book. At this point the film becomes (as the voiceover man might have put it) How the F!B!I! declared WAR! on the KU! KLUX! KLAN!. It was sort of hilarious (one highlight was when an undercover black FBI agent pretends to be a local black man and threatens to cut the mayor’s balls off if he doesn’t give information) and sort of terrible.
The portrayal of FBI involvement seems deeply dodgy to me, and Howard Zinn has written about it here:
Anybody who was involved in the Southern movement at that time knew with absolute certainty: The FBI could not be counted on and it was not the friend of the civil rights movement. The FBI stood by with their suits and ties-I’m sorry I’m dressed this way today, but I was just trying to throw them off the track-and took notes while people were being beaten in front of them.
It’s pretty terrible that a film set in 1964 should show no trace of the civil rights movement consciousness among the black population – remember, this is after the Montgomery bus boycott, after the desegregation of Little Rock, after the freedom rides and the beginning of voter organisation. Even in Mississippi, there must have been something. Instead, the narrative is one of the heroic white men – heroic white FBI agents – saving the mute and resigned mass of anonymous blacks.
Gene Hackman was great, though.