Civil Rights Star in D.C. Film Opening

The fires from the burning churches never left the screen as the worlds of Hollywood and politics mixed with ease here Friday for the world premiere of “Mississippi Burning.”

The ubiquitous red carpet, spotlights, limousines and cameras were there along with a guest list that ranged from civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to stars Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand and director Alan Parker.

They were among the crowd of political notables, ambassadors, political reporters and others who filled the 1,200-seat Cineplex-Odeon Uptown Theater in fashionable Northwest Washington to watch Orion Picture’s $15-million movie. It is loosely based on the events following the brutal murders of three young civil rights workers on June 21, 1964, in Neshoba County, Miss. Their bodies were discovered 44 days later buried in an earthen dam.

“This movie will educate millions of Americans too young to recall the sad events of that summer about what life was like in this country before the enactment of the civil rights laws,” said Kennedy. The small crowd gathered outside the theater greeted the senator with cheers of “Kennedy in ’92" as he arrived.


“And it will bring home to all of us how far we have come as a nation in the past 25 years,” Kennedy said, “and of the need to remain vigilant today in fighting bigotry in all of its terrible forms.”

For some in the audience the film stirred poignant memories of their actions during the civil rights movement. “So many people I know died in that struggle . . . a struggle that still continues,” said Washington Mayor Marion Barry, who was working in Ohio with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee the summer of 1964 when James Chaney, a young black man, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both white, were killed.

The movie’s title, “Mississippi Burning,” is taken from the FBI investigation file of the manhunt.

While adding that he considered the movie to be “pretty accurate,” Barry didn’t find as much credence in some of the unorthodox methods used by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI agents in the film to arrest those involved in the murders. “The FBI wouldn’t have done that type of stuff.”


Orion included a disclaimer at the end of the film saying that the characters in the movie do not depict people living or dead.

While Barry’s comments were typical of many of those in the crowd who were bused several blocks from the theater to the nearby Sheraton Washington Hotel for a four-course dinner that lasted until midnight, others expressed concern that the film would leave moviegoers with a jaundiced view of the South, especially Mississippi.

“This is not the Mississippi of today,” said Rep. Mike Espy(D-Miss.), the first black congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction. He was 11 at the time of the murders.

To him, some images in the film paralleled his state’s progress. At the beginning of the film were the separate water fountains for whites and blacks that he remembered from childhood. At the end of the film one of his precinct captains had a part singing.


“It was real, but it was the real Mississippi of 24 years ago,” Espy said. “It was an accurate, factual account of a tragedy, but you have to put it in the proper context--and make sure that it never happens again.”

Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus, 39, who had to miss the premiere because of a previous commitment, flew to Washington after the premiere to reinforce his concern that his state not be viewed poorly.

Mabus, who saw a rough cut of the film several months ago, said Saturday in an interview that “it certainly concerns me and Mississippi that people not think the film represents Mississippi today. We’re the most progressive, integrated society in America today.”

At the premiere dinner, Orion executives expressed confidence about the film’s appeal and its release in Los Angeles and four other cities Friday. They expressed hopes that the movie will draw attention and Academy Award nominations as they position it as a special piece of cinema “if not a milestone in American movie making,” said Charles O. Glenn, executive vice president of marketing.


“I’m very proud of it,” said Arthur Krim, chairman of the board of Orion. Krim recalled being a delegate to the 1964 Democratic convention when delegates from the new Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party made an emotion-charged appeal to be seated as the official delegation and in a compromise won the right for several delegates to participate.

“It’s a very important film because it’s so important for the younger people who grew up after President John Kennedy to know what kind of world it was,” Krim said.

British director Alan Parker, who has seen the film 30-50 times and checked the print during the afternoon before the show, said he found the audience “looser” than he expected. Parker ducked into a neighboring bar for part of the premiere screening.

From his perspective as a director, he said: “It’s very rare that you get a chance to say something soundly relevant in a film from Hollywood. You beg for those opportunities these days.”


Relaxed and smiling, Parker and his colleagues milled easily with the Washington dinner crowd, which generally is more comfortable with politicians than with Hollywood stars.

As the stars left at about midnight, so did the crowd. Among the last to linger were two handsome men and a beautiful woman in a strapless black velvet evening dress--all FBI agents who liked the film but agreed that the methods used by the FBI to track down the alleged killers would hardly be condoned.

There were two things, however, that they found inaccurate in the movie. The FBI badges were wrong, they said, showing theirs. And then there was the matter of the shirts. Dafoe wore a blue one in the film.

“Hoover would never have allowed blue shirts,” said FBI agent Michael Allen, who made it a point to wear a blue shirt to the premiere.