May 5, 1989: Mississippi Burning in UK cinemas

“1964. When America was at war with itself.”

Mississippi_Burning-1989Mississippi Burning is a 1988 American crime thriller film directed by Alan Parker, and written by Chris Gerolmo. It is loosely based on the FBI’s investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers in the state of Mississippi in 1964. Set in fictional Jessup County, Mississippi, the film stars Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as two FBI agents assigned to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers. The investigation is met with hostility and backlash by the town’s residents, local police and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Gerolmo began work on the original script in 1985, inspired by an article and several books detailing the FBI’s investigation into the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. He and producer Frederick Zollo brought the script to Orion Pictures, and the studio hired Parker to direct the film. Parker and Gerolmo, however, had disagreements over the script, which resulted in Orion allowing the director to make uncredited rewrites. On a budget of $15 million, the film’s principal photography commenced in March 1988 and concluded in May of that year; filming locations included a number of locales in Mississippi and Alabama.

Orion Pictures released the film using a platform technique which involved opening it in select cities to generate strong word-of-mouth interest, before expanding distribution in the following weeks. Following its release, Mississippi Burning became embroiled in controversy; it was heavily criticized for its fictionalization of history by black activists involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the families of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. Critical reaction towards the film was mixed, though the performances of Hackman, Dafoe and Frances McDormand were generally praised. Mississippi Burning was a modest box office success, grossing $34.6 million during its domestic theatrical run. The film received various awards and nominations; it received seven Academy Award nominations at the 61st Academy Awards in 1989, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hackman) and Best Supporting Actress (McDormand), but won only one award for Best Cinematography.

Cinema-UK-05-05-1989

In 1964, three civil rights workers (one white, one Jewish and one black) who organize a voter registry for minorities in Jessup County, Mississippi go missing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation sends two agents, Rupert Anderson—a former Mississippi sheriff—and Alan Ward, to investigate. The pair find it difficult to conduct interviews with the local townspeople, as Sheriff Ray Stuckey and his deputies exert influence over the public and are linked to a branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The wife of Deputy Sheriff Clinton Pell reveals to Anderson in a discreet conversation that the three missing men have been murdered. Their bodies are later found buried in an earthen dam. Stuckey deduces Mrs Pell’s confession to the FBI and informs Pell, who brutally beats his wife in retribution.

Anderson and Ward devise a plan to indict members of the Klan for the murders. They arrange a kidnapping of Mayor Tilman, taking him to a remote shack. There, he is left with a black man, who threatens to castrate him unless he talks. The abductor is an FBI operative assigned to intimidate Tilman, who gives him a full description of the killings, including the names of those involved. Although his statement is not admissible in court due to coercion, his information proves valuable to the investigators.

Anderson and Ward exploit the new information to concoct a plan, luring identified KKK collaborators to a bogus meeting. The Klan members soon realize it is a set-up and leave without discussing the murders. The FBI then concentrate on Lester Cowens, a Klansman of interest, who exhibits a nervous demeanor which the agents believe might yield a confession. The FBI pick him up and interrogate him. Later, Cowens is at home when his window is shattered by a shotgun blast. After seeing a burning cross on his lawn, Cowens tries to flee in his truck, but is caught by several hooded men who intend to hang him. The FBI arrive to rescue him, having staged the whole scenario; the hooded men are revealed to be other agents.

Cowens, believing that his fellow Klansmen have threatened his life because of his admissions to the FBI, incriminates his accomplices. The Klansmen are charged with civil rights violations, as this can be prosecuted at the federal level. Most of the perpetrators are found guilty and receive sentences ranging from three to ten years in prison. Stuckey, however, is acquitted of all charges, and Tilman is later found dead by the FBI in an apparent suicide. Mrs. Pell returns to her home, which has been completely ransacked by vandals, and resolves to stay and rebuild her life, free of her husband. Before leaving town, Anderson and Ward visit an integrated congregation gathered at an African-American cemetery, where the black civil rights activist’s desecrated gravestone reads, “Not Forgotten”. [Wikipedia]

Watch the trailer on the Movieclips Trailer Vault YouTube Channel.

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