Director Alan Parker has 'em hot in Mississippi, where his civil rights drama, "Mississippi Burning," with Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as FBI investigators, opens next month (it opened here Friday and is also playing in Chicago, Toronto, Washington, D.C. and New York City). In the current issue of the film magazine Premiere, Parker is quoted as saying, "It's fascinating, really, that so much culture and history could come out of so backward an area. I mean, all this wealth, and all still owned by whites. There's some of the worst poverty in the Western world here, and it's all black.
"Things really haven't changed all that much since the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, have they?"
The quote sparked coverage and comment in a number of Mississippi newspapers. A publicist has said that Parker and others mentioned in the article were "upset because they were severely misquoted."
The director, without denying making the statement, has called the Premiere piece "disgusting" and "disgraceful," claiming it distorted his views. In an interview with Harold Reynolds, a reporter for the Biloxi Sun-Herald, Parker said it would be "pretentious" for him to talk about changes in the state. "What do I know?" the Sun-Herald quoted him last week. "I wasn't there in 1964."
"If I'm asked to make a judgment," he went on, "there seems to be a lot of change (in Mississippi), yes, certainly. But nearly enough?"
He said his remarks weren't aimed at Mississippians but at "an incredibly economically divided and racially divided society. It's always a shock in the richest country in the world to see such poverty."
He added, "I think in Mississippi they're doing a great deal to change that--a great deal."
It was the Sun-Herald (circulation 50,000) that broke the story last week that Gov. Ray Mabus was rushing to D.C. after the movie's premiere to "calm the fires" allegedly fanned by Parker's words and by the film itself, which portrays an investigation into the brutal murders of three young civil rights workers in virulently racist Mississippi in 1964. Although the governor's office has denied it, sources have alleged that the popular Mabus nixed the premiere in Mississippi, fearing political repercussions, then capitalized on the D.C. screening, where he gained national media attention jumping to the state's defense.
"The magazine article was the lightning rod that set the controversy off," said John Johnson, executive editor of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the state's largest paper.
Both the Clarion-Ledger and the smaller Sun-Herald sent reporters to cover the D.C. affair. The Clarion-Ledger's Reynolds also reviewed the film with a rave--four out of four stars.
"Generally, we don't do spot reviews," said managing editor Mike Tonos. "But this was the most talked about thing around here over the weekend.
"There's no outcry over the accuracy of the film. It accurately portrays (Mississippi) the way it was (25) years ago. The worry is image. It portrays Mississippi as it was in the 1960s. People see this and don't realize the state has changed. It reinforces a stereotype."
Buddy Golden, Orion's executive vice president for distribution, anticipates "no problems" booking "Burning" into Ole Miss theaters: "We screened it down South already for a number of exhibitors and they're all eager for it. The reception was unbelievably great. Not one exhibitor has expressed the slightest apprehension about playing it, and that's the truth."
The Clarion-Ledger's Johnson expects none: "I don't see any move to picket it or ban it. The public feeling (here) is that it dredges up our past and reinforces a negative image. But we're used to that."
Charles Mitchell, managing editor of the Evening Post in Vicksburg, where much of "Burning" was filmed, said there has been "not a bit, not a word" of complaint from readers about the coming attraction. In fact, he said, "There's a great deal of interest in that (civil rights) period among people here."
Vicksburg, he noted, is predominantly white but has a black mayor, and that Mississippi has more black elected officials--336--than any other state in the country.
"Would that have happened if those three men hadn't died? I don't know."
The Ku Klux Klan held a well-attended rally there just last week, he said, but "that didn't have anything to do with the movie."