A Time for Burning--Murder in Mississippi
During World War II, a group of black soldiers were asked what should be done with Hitler if he were captured alive. Their response: “Paint him black and sentence him to life in Mississippi.”
--From “Attack on Terror: The FBI Against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi,” by Don Whitehead
Everybody stared hard at the stage. A tall, angry man--his glasses steamy with perspiration, his face as red as his suspenders--was giving a stem-winding White Citizens Council stump speech.
He stood in front of a huge banner, adorned with the slogan, “Never Never Never.” Shaking his fist, he bellowed, “I love Mississippi!”
Waving torches in the air, the crowd erupted with cheers and applause. “ They hate Mississippi,” the man continued, his eyes shiny with fervor. “They hate us because we present a shining example of successful segregation. These Northern students, with their atheist communist bosses, came into our community this summer with the wish to destroy it. This week their cause has been crippled. . . . They’re powerless against us, if every last Anglo-Saxon Christian one of us stands together!”
The cheers were deafening. No one seemed to mind that it was way past midnight, the mosquitos were biting and the ground was so gooey that every time you moved, your feet sank up to your ankles. It was a sight to behold--600 rowdy Mississippians standing in a big muddy field on a hot spring night, sweating and hollering, in no mood to leave.
Off to one side of the stage, a woman who’d been watching this noisy display turned to a visitor, saying, “I just keep telling myself what they said about ‘Jaws'--it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie!”
OK, it is only a movie. The spirited populace was recruited extras; the fiery speaker turned out to be actor Stephen Tobolowsky, who plays a Ku Klux Klan leader; the rally had been going all night because director Alan Parker was shooting a complicated series of close-ups.
But for Hollywood moviegoers too young to remember the grim ‘60s news footage of Southern church bombings, firehose assaults and bloody night-stick beatings, this film could be a startling history lesson. Called “Mississippi Burning,” it’s a chilling detective tale starring Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman as a pair of FBI agents investigating the murder of three young civil-rights workers.
Due out by Christmas from Orion Pictures, the $15-million Dixie noir looks to be more than just another heated Hollywood polemic about race relations in the South. It probes the uneasy alliance of two FBI men, with Hackman as an ex-Mississippi sheriff who’s turned his back on prejudice and Dafoe as a brash Northerner eager to put his Kennedy-era ideals into action.
The film is set in 1964, during what people here call “The Long Hot Summer.” It was a summer of crisis--a summer when hundreds of young, predominately white civil rights activists invaded Mississippi, trained to educate blacks and help them register to vote.
Locals in that era scoffed at the activist label--they preferred the term “outside agitator.” By summer’s end, the Mississippi chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had ballooned to more than 5,000 members. The state Klan leader, Sam Bowers--later sentenced to 10 years in jail for his role in the civil rights workers’ murders--was a lifelong bachelor who entertained visitors by barking “Heil Hitler” to his dog. He was also accused of masterminding nine murders, 75 bombings of black churches and 300 assaults and beatings.
Three of the murders occurred on June 21, 1964, on Highway 19, 3 miles east of Philadelphia, Miss. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were jailed by local police, then released later that night--virtually into the arms of Bowers’ Ku Klux Klansmen, who shot them, dumped their car in the Bogue Chitto swamp and buried the trio in an earthen dam on a farm called the Old Jolly Place.
For legal reasons, the filmmakers don’t mention the names of the civil rights workers. They’ve also changed the names of the Klansmen and the locations where actual events occurred. They’ve even disguised the brand of chewing tobacco used by local lawmen, switching from Red Man (the real thing) to Old Jake, a fictional brand designed by the prop department.
The Struggle Persists
Still, no one’s bothered to disguise what state spawned this ugly mayhem. The film, which wrapped late last month, offers graphic reminders of an era where redneck locals denounced Northern FBI agents as “commie-loving Hoover boys” (for J. Edgar Hoover) and claimed the NAACP (National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People) stood for a collection of racial slurs.
Mississippi’s new generation of young state officials, led by Harvard Law graduate Gov. Ray Mabus, prefer to emphasize the state’s progress since its days as a backwater haven of bigotry. Yet they eagerly recruited “Mississippi Burning,” hoping the film would dramatize the vast gulf between the state’s Yuppie-style administration and its era of ‘60s strife.
But even today’s Mississippi offers many confusing images--some refreshingly positive, others depressingly archaic.
Jackson, the state capital, boasts tall office skyscrapers and an ornate, white-columned governor’s mansion illuminated by floodlights which shine late into the night. It’s also a town, where--just blocks away from the Capitol building--you can find tattered second-hand clothing stores, one which displayed the hand-written advertisement, “We stretch shoes to fit your feet--come see!”
A branch of the local library here is named after Eudora Welty and the city offers a thriving rhythm & blues scene operating out of joints like Lueberta’s Bar-B-Que & Catfish Restaurant and Lounge. The paper--the Jackson Clarion-Ledger--runs death notices with quotes from grieving widows, one of whom said of her late husband, “Kimble was Methodist; I was Baptist. We didn’t discuss that too much.”
Jackson even has its own warring street gangs--the Vice Lords vs. the Folks--who deal drugs and had a recent shoot-out at a park that wounded five people.
The civil rights struggle is far from dead. Local blacks recently ended a 10-week boycott against white-owned businesses only after a Jackson-area school board rescinded the hiring of a football coach who’d previously served as athletic director of an all-white private academy.
To borrow from the state’s literary laureate, William Faulkner, the past isn’t really past. Most state offices were closed on a recent Monday here, but not in honor of Martin Luther King’s Birthday. It was Confederate Memorial Day, which is still celebrated in most counties here.
Back at the film location, a muddy farmer’s field 10 miles outside of Jackson, many extras spent their rehearsal break trying to spot Willem Dafoe, who wandered around the outskirts of the crowd, dressed in his regulation grey FBI suit and horn-rimmed glasses.
Most locals here downplayed the impact of the Citizen Council scene’s eerie they-hate-Mississippi rhetoric. “That’s ancient history around here,” said Roy, a high school student who’d been given a period-style crew-cut by the filmmakers. “People still get up in arms about the Confederate flag, but we’ve had too many changes for people to go back now.”
But ask Alan Parker, who grew up in a Cockney working-class family in London, why he wanted to make this film in Mississippi and he offers a different story.
“We could’ve done this movie in any Southern state, but when you come across the border into Mississippi, you feel something different,” he explained. “And it still is different. Gene Hackman told me that when he went to the cleaners today, the guy behind the counter said, ‘Oh, you’re the actor that’s in that nigger movie they’re making down here.’ ”
Parker tapped his finger on his plate. “That’s why we’re doing the film here. If you’re going to make a movie about that attitude, you should be where you can see it every day.”
It was nearly 2 a.m. when Parker plunged into the crowd, looking for extras with striking faces. “You . . . and you . . . " he’d say, pointing first to a wrinkled old man in a straw hat, then to a woman with a tiny child in her arms.
“I want the children up front,” Parker said, eyeing a little girl in pig-tails. “They have such extraordinary faces--I want people to see where the seeds of bigotry begin.”
Parker shot nearly a dozen more versions of the stump speech before calling it a night.
As the extras waded through the swampy grass to a row of buses that would drive them home, a young man in baggy overalls waved his hat in the air and bellowed, “I LOVE Mississippi!”
A clump of extras walking nearby took up the cheer. Exhausted from a long night of filming but exhilarated by being a small part of Hollywood’s rendition of their history, they crooned a triumphant rebel yell, “I LOVE Mississippi!”
Bitter and Sweet
John Horhn was 9 in the summer of 1964: “I remember our family used to drive by a big swimming pool on Bailey Ave. On a really hot day, we’d see all these white people in there--swimming, laughing and having a good time. And I’d say to my father, ‘Dad, can’t we pull over and go swimming?’ He’d say no. When I’d ask why not, he’d say, ‘Because that pool’s for white people.’
“I couldn’t even go downtown and try on shoes at McCrae’s department store. I would tell my mother what my size was and she’d go buy them for me. It was only when I was older that I found out why. If you were black and tried on a pair of shoes, you had to buy them. Black people couldn’t wear shoes that white people might end up buying.
“It’s funny, because white people lived up the street from us. But there was this imaginary line between them and us. And it was a line you just never crossed.”
After a three-year stint running Mississippi’s film commission, John Horhn is now executive director of the state’s Federal-State programs. He’s a key figure in luring business to the economically stunted state, which remains last in the nation in such categories as per-capita income, employment rate and literacy rate.
Both jobs involve image making. And Horhn, a black man in power in a state where blacks were systematically excluded from power for a century, sends a powerful message simply with his presence.
Of course, nothing sends a message quite so quickly as a powerful movie.
“I felt that even if I didn’t do anything else in this job, I was going to bring this film to Mississippi,” said Horhn, whose office was decorated with a Black History Achievers poster, an etching of Gandhi and a stack of files with a “Hearts of Dixie” cap sitting on top. (“Hearts” is another Orion film Horhn has lured here--it co-stars Ally Sheedy, Virgina Madsen and Phoebe Cates in a coming-of-age story set during the eve of the Civil Rights era in Mississippi.)
“I’m tired of having this mid-'60s image of a state that’s stuck in racial prejudice and ignorance. We don’t want to be known as a place where civil rights workers were shot and where James Meredith had to risk his life to integrate the University of Mississippi.
“And I figured that we’d just have to take the bitter with the sweet. If we could make a movie happen that tells the toughest story about our state, then it would show we could handle anything.”
By Horhn’s account, the filmmakers were equally nervous about coming to Mississippi. “When I first spoke to them, I heard a lot of hesitancy. They’d been doing research in other parts of the South, but I was told they were scared to come to Mississippi.
“So I said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to come down here. This isn’t the same state it was 23 years ago.’ ” Horn related, with a wry grin. “They were even scouting locations in Forsythe County, Georgia (a renown hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity)! So I said, ‘Hey, if you can shoot this movie in Forsythe County, you can shoot it here!’ ”
Horhn pointed toward a wide office window that offers a panoramic view of Jackson. “I wouldn’t be sitting where I’m sitting if Mississippi hadn’t changed. Black people play a big role in state--in its politics, in its economics--roles we’ve never had before.
“Our public schools are better integrated than anywhere else in the country. There are about 5,000 elected black officials, which in terms of sheer numbers, is more than anywhere else in the country. Yet our image has lagged behind the reality.”
Horhn read the film script early on--and found it a bitter-sweet experience. “It really rings true--but in a sad way. The brutality and loss of humanity comes through very clearly.
“But the only way to avoid repeating the past is by examining it. There’s a whole generation of people who have no idea what the civil rights movement was or how much it meant to people. You hear people say, ‘Well, that’s civil rights--that story’s been told already. But no one has questioned the right of the Jewish community, which controls the media, to retell the story of the Holocaust.
“And when it comes to what happened down here, it’s a story that can’t be told--and retold-- enough. It’s important for black people to know from whence they came.”
Horhn shrugged. “And for white people to know where they come from too.”
Fred Zollo was 11 that summer: “I was in Massachusetts, swimming in a friend’s swimming hole. I’d read about the disappearance of the kids. But I really remember sitting in front of the TV when they found the bodies. The images are still completely distinct. The burned car. The bodies in the bags. All the faces of the people watching. It was scary, because I really identified with those two Ivy League college kids who’d been killed. I remember thinking to myself, ‘That could’ve easily been me.”’
Noting that film companies often make crew jackets with the name of the movie on the back, producer Frederick Zollo said, “Our joke was that the jacket for our movie should be a bullet-proof vest.”
A respected young theater producer, Zollo has produced such notable plays as Eric Bogosian’s “Talk Radio,” David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly,” Marsha Norman’s “ ‘night, Mother” and the London production of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
Mississippi is a long way from Broadway, but the boyish-looking 35-year-old producer insisted that shooting has gone smoothly. “Everyone’s been supportive,” he said. “We’ve only had very small problems.”
Zollo didn’t elaborate, but crewmembers buzzed about a minor incident that occurred after the company shot a night scene at a local church.
“The next day, one of their officials called to say that we’d forgot to erase the graffiti we’d written on the side of the church,” a crewman recalled. “We said, ‘What graffiti? We didn’t write anything on the church.’ And they said, ‘Well, then what’s this big ‘KKK’ sign doing painted on the church?’ ”
Zollo insists the state has undergone an enormous tranformation. “This is still a very poor, backward place. But at least they’re facing up to their problems, which is more than you can say for a lot of states.
“Look at the difference between the way the Mississippi presidential primary and the New York primary were handled. New York’s was awash in charges of racism and anti-Semitism.
“But the campaign here was very calm and well-conducted. I’d wager that Jesse Jackson got more white votes in Mississippi than in New York.”
Zollo knows Hollywood is hardly in a position to preach when it comes to racial opportunity--it’s no secret that most film crews are virtually all-white. Of the roughly 60-person crew here, there were at most four blacks, not counting actors and stunt-men.
“Obviously we wanted to have black crew members--and we wanted to have the best people,” Zollo said diplomatically. “And I think we have both.”
Don’t expect Zollo and Alan Parker to become a regular filmmaking item when this picture’s over. The tensions between the two were obvious on the set--in fact they rarely spoke, even during the course of a long night’s shoot.
Away from visitors, Zollo impishly dubbed Parker as “Captain Bly.” On-record, he was more diplomatic.
“The auteur theory is definitely in force--Alan runs his set like a commander-in-chief,” Zollo said, forcing a smile. “He’s a difficult man and we’ve had our differences. But it’s nice to have someone on the set who knows exactly what he wants. Let’s say, to use the metaphor, that you have to pass the baton. And Alan hasn’t dropped it yet.”
Alan Parker was 20 in 1964: “I was in London, just beginning to work as a copywriter at an ad agency. I had always been very political, perhaps because I came from such a poor, working-class background. But the events happening in America that summer really changed our view of the States.
“Everyone who was young in England had always been obsessed with America, with its movies, its music, all of its culture. It was like an El Dorado. But the turmoil and ugl i ness of the civil rights movement really darkened our view of America considerably. It was really the first time you realized that the America we’d seen through the eyes of Hollywood movies wasn’t neccessarily the America of reality.”
“I am difficult!” Alan Parker boasted. He was eating dinner in his trailer, parked on a remote country road where he was shooting an FBI manhunt scene. “When I was being very difficult once, I was described by one of my critics as an ‘aesthetic fascist.’ ”
The director twirled his knife in the air, relishing the image for a moment. “But I’m not difficult for ego reasons or for desire of awards--but for the work. I’m not making movies for 14 intellectuals at the Cinemateque in Paris. I’m making films that have to find a wide audience. So I’ve got a responsibility to take the producer’s $15 million--and do this right.”
You immediately wonder why an Englishmen like Parker, best known for films of sensation and surprise--ranging from Oscar winners like “Midnight Express” and “Fame” to less successful ventures like “Angel Heart"--would be involved in such a distinctly American undertaking.
Hearing the 44-year-old director talk about his childhood makes it easier to understand. His ambitions have been shaped by his working-class origins and fueled by an anger at class snobbery and injustice. It’s particularly revealing that the one documentary short he ever made was a wildly subversive film, intercutting shots--and the stirring music--from “Chariots of Fire” with present-day scenes of English soccer riots, wildcat strikes and the British fleet steaming back from the Falklands.
“I wanted to show how different our British self-image was--that stiff-upper lip attitude and the civilized elegance--from the true violence and hatred spawned by our society.”
Parker laughed. “David Puttnam, who’s probably my best friend, was furious with me for using ‘Chariots.’ But I like to turn over the rock and show what’s underneath.”
A keen-witted man who can be arrogant one moment, charming the next, Parker isn’t shy about analyzing America’s racial problems. “You’d hope that the wealthiest country in the world could at least eradicate poverty,” he said coolly. “Mississippi is a poor, depressing place. I’ve seen more poverty here, especially in black areas, than I’ve ever seen before.”
Parker didn’t sound convinced about the depth of change in racial attitudes here. “They may have stopped calling blacks ‘niggers’ in public, but you hear that word so often down here that it’s clear that it no longer embarrasses them. I’ve heard it everywhere I go.”
Parker ran his hands through his matted hair--judging from the craggy lines in his face and the bags under his eyes, he was exhausted. “One point I’m trying to make in the script is that racism has a lot to do with class,” he said. “The white working class here was totally duped. The upper classes set up this black underclass so the poor whites would feel better--at least there was a whole class underneath them.”
From the way Parker spoke of the script, you’d think he wrote it himself. Actually, it’s by Chris Gerolmo, a young screenwriter who teamed with Zollo on another film, “Miles From Home,” due out later this year.
“I tried to work with the writer to fix the script, which didn’t work very well,” Parker said. “So the easiest thing was for me to completely re-write it. The racial events of the period were just too important for the script to read just as a detective story.”
(Needless to say, Gerolmo hotly disputed Parker’s assessment of his script: “After Alan was hired it quickly became apparent that he was intent on redoing the script. We did try working together, but he really browbeat me into making all of his changes. He turned out to be a real creep. After lunch on our first day of working together, he became very bombastic and ugly, calling me an amateur, a dilettante and saying my script was stupid and lazy. By the end of the first day, he was holding the script up in the air and saying, ‘This ain’t worth making.’
(“I think Alan’s problem is that he pretends to be a Marxist but he’s actually a Fascist. He doesn’t like Americans at all, so he wanted the script to really whack it to us. He took out any lyricism I had in the story and painted all the white people to be ugly, oafish, stupid and drunk.”
(Gerolmo praised Zollo’s involvement in the film, but said that Orion sided with Parker in their disputes. “Alan is a $1.6-million player in Hollywood and Orion needed an A-director who could get the movie ready by Christmas. It’s a matter of power. It’s like when there was a battle between Magic Johnson and (ex-Laker coach) Paul Westhead--guess who won.”)
As Parker headed back out to the set, he mused, “I don’t know how directors do this when they’re 70--it’s so physically difficult. The other day I worked 24 hours straight. We shot at night, I scouted locations all day and then worked through the night again.”
He offered a weak smile. “The last thing I remember was falling asleep in the van. When a problem arose, I heard my crew say, ‘I don’t think we better wake him. He might get angry!’ ”
In the summer of 1964, Norma Bourdeaux was a young mother living with her husband, Thomas, who was an attorney in Meridian, about 45 miles from Philadelphia: “I remember the first time I saw Michael Schwerner here that summer. He was walking down 23rd Street--and he really did look decidedly different. He just stood out. You’d see him driving around town in his Volkswagen. And he had a goatee, which you didn’t see much of in those days.
“In fact, all the kids that came down here that summer stuck out. They were ill-kempt--the men down here wore their hair short. Even the FBI men that came to town were completely ostracized. No one ever spoke to them. And they were easy to spot. Their cars had those whiplash antennaes--and they all wore those hot suits in the middle of summer. They stuck out as much as the (civil rights) workers.”
The first thing a visitor noticed as he went through Norma Bourdeaux’s dog-eared scrapbooks was a stack of faded postcards. Each had a 5-cent stamp and a picture of a group of men at a meeting. In the front row, with an arrow pointed toward his head, sat Martin Luther King.
The back of the card featured the inscription: “Martin Luther King at Communist Training School--a picture taken by a secret counteragent during a Red Workshop in Race Agitation.”
In the middle of the card, typed in red ink, was an anonymous message: “Time Is Running Out.” Another card had a similar warning: “Big Brother Is Watching You.”
Bourdreaux made a motion of dismissal with her hands. “Really, that’s nothing,” she said. “We sent the really ugly ones over to the FBI.”
Bourdreaux was one of the 21 members of a Federal grand jury, called in February, 1967, which handed down indictments against Klan members and police officials involved in the murder of the three civil-rights activists. Bourdreaux still displays a painting on her living room wall that she drew of the Klansmen in a crowded courtroom, while her scrapbooks overflow with clippings of the trial. She’s even saved crumpled messages that the defendants passed to their lawyers each day in court.
Still active in community affairs, Bourdreaux was, until this spring, chairwoman of the state’s now-defunct Commission for Children and Youth. Still youthful looking at 57, she’s also outspoken, whether it comes to the local newspapers (“They were terrible and they’re still terrible”) or the popular new governor, who counts her daughter as a member of his administration, but can’t count on her mother for any kind words.
During the Long Hot Summer, Norma and Thomas, who served as Meridian city attorney in the mid-'60s, were considered far-out liberals, at least by Mississippi standards. “A lot of people didn’t care for us because we talked to black people,” she recalled. “And when the grand jury came along, we were harassed quite a bit.
“We were only afraid because we didn’t know what the Klan would do. They had a blacklist with Thomas’ name right at the top. We’d get all sorts of hate mail--things like ‘The Klan Wants You!'--or we’d find a dead rat in our mailbox.
“We also got calls every morning for months at around 3 a.m., with someone breathing heavily on the line. I was pregnant that summer and I had trouble sleeping, so I think it must’ve disappointed them, because I’d already be up, all bright-eyed, when they called.
“Once I even tried to rig up a dictaphone from the office so I could play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ when they called, but it didn’t work. But I felt bad for them since they probably had to set an alarm to call that early--and here I was up already.”
The couple didn’t have any crosses burned in their front yard, perhaps due to Klan ineptitude. “The Klan was so dumb,” Norma said to her husband. “Don’t you remember the time they were after Louise Rosenbaum? They tried to burn a cross on her lawn, but they did it on her cousin’s front lawn by mistake. Boy, was she furious!”
The Bourdreauxes insisted that Klan membership didn’t convey much respectability. “Everyone thought they were a bunch of thugs,” Thomas said. “But no one was very friendly to the Northerners either. I don’t think many people liked them coming down here.”
Thomas Bourdreaux chuckled. “The local papers stirred it up too. I remember a great headline in the Clarion-Ledger. Medgar Evers had been killed by a man from Greenwood, but the man had lived in California for maybe a year. So the headline read: ‘Californian Charged in Evers Death.’ ”
After the dead youths’ bodies were found, local opinion shifted considerably.
“When it was laid out what had happened, I think there was a real awakening,” Thomas said. “The folks around here began to feel that these men really were murderers and that it was too bad 10 years was all they could get.”
The couple say that after the uproar of the mid-'60s, attitudes changed--permanently. “I know this probably sounds parochial,” Thomas said. “But there’s a strong current of civility down here. Once the civil-rights measures became law--and people saw that black people weren’t going to rape their women or take over every position in the state government--then those people realized they could live with these laws and start to live with black people too.”
How much impact the movie might have on this new enlightenment is uncertain. “Oh, there’ll be letters to the local papers saying how awful it is that these Yankees came down here and are making money off what happened almost 30 years ago,” Norma predicted, with a wave of her hand. “But I think its good to have Hollywood down here.”
She smiled. “Maybe they’ll make a lot of money. But right now, they’re spending it here.”
On the Set
Alan Parker scrambled along a dolly track in the swampy woods near Vicksburg, bobbing up and down with each step he took in the spongy ground (“It’s like walking on mattresses,” is how actor Kevin Dunn put it). Parker was preparing a scene where FBI agents Hackman and Dafoe stumble through the backwoods brambles and discover a young black youth who’s been beaten and tortured by the Klan.
Even after midnight, the air was steamy and still, with swarms of bugs collecting wherever the crew placed a bank of spotlights. It must’ve been just as hot those summer nights of ’64, when FBI agents searched similar swamps for dead bodies.
As Parker mapped out his master shot, Simeon Teagus, who plays the black youth, was already curled up in a bed of twigs and tall grass, movie blood on his face, torso and groin.
A crew member hunkered down nearby. “You got to watch out for water moccasins in these woods,” he joked. Teagus grinned. “Don’t worry--they don’t like dark meat.”
The crewman said, ‘These are a new breed. They brought ‘em in from Africa. Special import. They love that soft, Afro-American meat!”
The jiving continued until Hackman and Dafoe arrived on the scene, sweat already seeping through their FBI suits. After a rehearsal, Parker called for action.
Dafoe was the first to reach the black youth. As the kid writhed in pain, Dafoe lifted his head and cradled it in his arms. When Hackman joined his partner, he stared at the gored youth, his eyes dark with anger and helplessness.
Still clutching the youth, Dafoe said in a low, sorrowful voice, “What’s wrong with these people?”
Parker whispered “Cut.” The director hurried to Dafoe’s side. “You know what might be a good idea?” he said. “When you first hold him, his pants are around his knees. Why don’t you try pulling them up, as if you’re trying to preserve his dignity.”
Dafoe practiced the manuever, then wandered off into the woods. Parker huddled with his cameramen. Hackman took a seat on a nearby stump.
“Gene always has that edge,” the director said of Hackman, who was too busy to be interviewed. “He reminds me of what Spencer Tracy must’ve been like--always razor-sharp. Warren Beatty once paid Gene the highest compliment. He said it’s impossible for you to be in a scene with him and not look good.”
The actors played the scene again--and again. Dafoe held the youth in his arms, this time hitching up the boy’s trousers. Parker calmly surveyed his scene. “That’s very good,” he said, almost under his breath. “Let’s do it again.”
Hackman looked forlornly up at the sky. “Geez, it’s hot out here,” he said, wiping his brow as he slumped on the nearby stump. “It just seems to get hotter as the night goes on.”
Willem Dafoe was 9 in 1964. “There were very few blacks where I grew up,” said Dafoe, who was raised in Appleton, Wis . “I was brought up in a totally white, Lutheran-Gemanic community. The only blacks in town were Africans with PhDs working at the local chemistry institute. So I felt far away from what was going on down South. Still, my parents instilled in me a humility that you shouldn’t put yourself above other people--that it was a sin. Your tolerance wasn’t really tested, because you grew up in such a homogenized place. But the values were there. If I’d ever used a word like ‘nigger,’ I’d have been slapped in the mouth.”
Away from the camera, Dafoe acts like such an unassuming guy that he’s retained an actor’s most cherished freedom--the niche of casual observer, not bird of prey. When Dafoe finished his work the night of the rally, he returned to the set, where it took nearly an hour for anyone to notice his presence.
Once Dafoe was spotted in his T-shirt and jeans, his respite was over. Still, the slender, soft-spoken actor graciously chatted with his fans, signing autographs and posing for photos.
A gangly raw-boned teen-ager shyly stuck out his hand. “I just wanted to tell you how much I liked you in ‘Platoon,’ ” he said, keeping his eyes to the ground. “You were really great. I’ve seen that movie a dozen times!”
A middle-aged couple stopped by with their daughter, Loretta, in tow. Too awestruck to actually talk, Loretta simply grinned, displaying a shiny set of braces.
A broad-shouldered man, his hair slicked back ’50’s-style with a thick slab of Bryl-Creem, was more forward. “Hey boy,” he said in a booming hill-country accent, clapping Dafoe on the back, “you should come out and have a couple of cocktails with us when this thing’s over!”
Dafoe isn’t particularly shy around friends. Gabbing with his fellow actors, he’s a gifted storyteller with a self-deprecating sense of humor. One night, after club-hopping with the crew, he joked about his erratic dancing style, saying, “I just hope I didn’t hurt any innocent bystanders.”
Unfortunately, Dafoe is awkwardly self-conscious during interviews. Even his body language changes--his loose-limbed swagger disappears, replaced by the grave posture of a high-school principal. Still, if the informality’s gone, his inquisitive intellect remains.
“As an actor, I’m always involved in a process of exploration about my character,” he explained, lighting a cigarette in his trailer. “In this film, the dilemna is--where does this FBI guy’s moral stance harden into a posture of blind arrogance? That’s fascinating to me. You have this guy--me--who’s morally correct, but fatally compromised by his crusader mentality.”
On location, Dafoe experienced lots of tests of this dilemna. “It’s so incredibly complicated down here,” he said, his voice edgy with frustration. “They have faced up to a lot already. But people here always preface things by saying, ‘I’m no racist.’ And then they turn around and say, ‘These niggers are just frustrated.’ ”
Dafoe shook his head. “At first, I wanted to stop them, on principle. But now I let them talk, because I want to hear--and to learn--what they have to say. But I don’t know what the answer is. I hear people say hateful things--very hateful things--and while understanding them is one way of approaching it, I wonder if that makes you soft.
“In a lot of ways, I’ve come to think that change can only come from forcing people to do things against their will. But then you’re forcing your point of view on people, so is that right? Do you have to become a bully to simply help people in need?”
Dafoe sighed. “See, I’m talking in a circle again. That’s what this stuff does to you.”
A New Attitude?
It’s been 49 years since Daniel Salony opened his Paramount Barber Shop on Farish St. in downtown Jackson--and the place looks unchanged. It sports hand-cranked barber chairs, a pair of battered spitoons and a row of dingy mirrors surely made out of glass prized more for its durability than for any reflective powers.
Judging from the hand-lettered sign on the wall, Salony isn’t getting rich. A shave goes for $3, a men’s haircut is $5 and a men’s “shag” is $6, as is a mysterious item labeled a “Hot Blow-Out.”
The prices are negotiable, as is the barber’s age. When the film crew sought to use his shop in the movie, Salony said he’d just turned 77. But today he’s 78--and growing older by the minute. “I’ll be 79 in July,” he said, tipping his porkpie hat. “I still feel good.”
Salony grumbled that the filmmakers “paid me $50 for the two chairs they broke, but it cost me $75 to fix ‘em.” However, his mood brightened after a visit from a production assistant who promised to make up the difference.
“I think this movie’s gonna help show people how things have changed,” he said, puffing on a fat cigar. “The attitude of white folk here is a whole lot better. They treat you as a human now.”
He waved his cigar toward the door. “Years ago, a colored boy would get whupped if anyone caught him talking to a white girl. They’d be ready to go out and hang him. Now you got a different story. A colored boy can go out and even marry a white woman. It’s the law!”
Salony grinned, displaying a crooked row of tobacco-stained teeth.
“It’s good to show how things been,” he said, rolling his cigar in his mouth. “It’s something you want to remember, I guess, just like it’s something you want to forget.”
Gay Anna Raszkiewicz of The Times Photo Library provided research assistance.