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‘Burning’ Issue: How Much to Alter Fact to Fuel Drama?

Times Arts Editor

The rising controversy over “Mississippi Burning” is a painful tribute to the power of film.

As the fictionalized story of the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in the 1960s has found sizable audiences, black leaders led by the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. have raised sharp complaints about the film.

The complaints essentially are that the story--inspired by but not duplicating an actual, well-chronicled 1964 tragedy--minimizes the role of blacks in the civil rights struggle in the ‘60s, celebrates two entirely fictional white FBI agents and ignores the actual indifference, if not the hostility, of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover toward the civil rights movement.

What is at issue is how far film makers can diverge from the facts to create a film that will attract and move audiences.

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The real Mississippi murders were solved by the testimony of an informant who was subsequently paid $30,000. This is not the stuff of high drama; it is not particularly heroic or inventive.

In the movie, the breakthrough clues come from the conscience-stricken wife of a sadistic deputy sheriff after the wife has all but been seduced by Gene Hackman. The villains are then enmeshed if not entrapped in a series of ploys that undeniably owe more to “Mission: Impossible” than to docudrama.

The film makers’ defense is that “Mississippi Burning” is a powerhouse, audience-holding melodrama from start to finish. In its early reels, when the churches and the houses are being firebombed, the climate of racial tension and fear is conveyed with fearful effectiveness.

Writing some production notes later, director Alan Parker said he concluded after viewing some newsreel footage of a Ku Klux Klan meeting that “the hideous reality was far worse than our fiction.”

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Mike Medavoy, production chief at Orion Pictures, which financed the film, said in a phone interview: “If we’d decided to do it as a documentary, it might have been admired but it would have gone on the shelf and far fewer people would have seen it. This is the first broadly acceptable film any studio has made on this subject. I’m proud of it, and I didn’t see Bill Cosby or Eddie Murphy making it.”

In the end “Mississippi Burning” doubles back to historical reality, so to speak, showing the vandalized tombstone of one of the actual slain civil rights workers. The reminder is that while conditions may have improved considerably in a quarter-century, the old venoms have not disappeared.

It is unarguably true that “Mississippi Burning,” whatever its telescoping of events and altering of details, captures the racial atmosphere of 1964 Mississippi with remarkable sensitivity. There is the sense of an imperiled old order digging in its heels and oiling its shotguns against inevitable change, of a kind of clandestine good will (as among housewives) competing with the mistrust and the legislated segregation.

The pervasive, inhibiting climate of fear may come as a revelation to later generations who have never heard, let’s say, of Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo. Revelation is no bad thing for a motion picture to have achieved. For all its engineered melodramatics, “Mississippi Burning” is a moral tract that, despite its triumphant ending, does not invite complacency or suggest that these events took place in some other world.

The FBI, though it supplies the film’s two protagonists, does not emerge unscathed, even without J. Edgar on the premises. The bureau is made to seem stuffy, arrogant, cumbersome, bureaucratic and insensitive. It is indubitably white, but not whitewashed.

A perfectionist critic can speculate that the film could have stayed a little closer to the originating reality and still found audiences, but the point is both academic and debatable.

Subtlety is not Alan Parker’s long suit; power is, from “Midnight Express” to “Shoot the Moon.” And whatever else can be said, he and scriptwriter Chris Gerolmo here engender a powerful sympathy for the victims of oppression and admiration for their brave, quiet defiance. No one would equate “Mississippi Burning” with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” but “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” wasn’t subtle either. And it is possible to say that both were about eras ending and new eras beginning.


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