Mississippi Burning (1988)



Director:    Alan Parker.

Starring:     Gene Hackman (Agent Rupert Anderson),  Willem Dafoe (Agent Alan Ward),  Frances McDormand (Mrs. Pell),  Brad Dourif (Deputy Clinton Pell),  R. Lee Ermey (Mayor Tilman),  Gailard Sartain (Sheriff Ray Stuckey),  Stephen Tobolowsky (Clayton Townley),  Michael Rooker (Frank Bailey),  Pruitt Taylor Vince (Lester Cowans),  Badja Djola (Agent Monk),  Kevin Dunn (Agent Bird). 

Based on the 1964 disappearance of three civil-rights workers, two white and one black, while driving through Mississippi.  The fictionalized story is about the two feuding FBI agents who are sent to investigate and find they are having all kinds of problems with the Mississippi rednecks, including the police, and their wall of silence.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

A black church is burning in Mississippi.  At night, three civil rights workers, Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman are driving in the Mississippi backwoods.  Chaney is black, the other two are white.  Up behind them come two cars and a pick-up truck with their lights out.  One of the cars starts bumping into the rear end of the car of the civil rights workers.  Schwerner is driving and he pulls off onto a dirt road that goes by some swampy areas. 

One of the cars puts on its police lights, which is the first indication that the police are chasing them.  Schwerner stops the car.  Deputy Clinton Pell gets out of his car and starts complaining about how fast the three men were driving.  They call Schwerner a nigger-loving Jew boy.   Other rednecks join in the verbal harassment of the men.   Redneck Frank Bailey shoots Schwerner in the head with his pistol at point blank range.  Lester Cowans complains that his fellow rednecks only left him a nigger to kill, ". . . but at least I shot me a nigger."

FBI agent Alan Ward is in charge of the investigation into the disappearance of the three civil rights workers.  His assistant is a Mississippian, agent Rupert Anderson.  The two men rub each other the wrong way.  As a Mississippian, Anderson thinks he knows more than his superior, Ward.  Ward resents Anderson's insubordinate way of dealing with him.  The boss also thinks that Anderson is not committed to the moral cause of the civil rights movement.  He thinks that Anderson may be rooting more for the rednecks more than the missing civil rights workers. 

The fellows come into Jessup County, Mississippi.  Some of the locals watch them as they park in the town (Philadelphia, Mississippi).  The agents go into talk with Sheriff Stuckey.  Deputy Pell gives them a hard time saying that Sheriff Stuckey is busy right now.  Ward says they will wait, but Anderson doesn't like this deputy at all.  He calls Pell some curse words and tells him in about two seconds he is going to kick the door in to the Sheriff's office, if the deputy doesn't get him out here. 

The Sheriff comes out and greets the agents.  The redneck calls Ward "boy" and says this so-called disappearance is just a publicity stunt cooked up by that Martin Luther King fellow.  Ward and Anderson wait in the car outside the police station.  Ward says that Pell arrested the three men around 3 p.m.  He held them until 10:30 p.m. and then let them go.  Pell supposedly followed them to the county line and then never saw them again.  Ward doesn't understand why the workers would not call in to their office, as they are supposed to once an hour.  The civil rights office started calling as soon as the workers failed to call in.  They called to Pell's office and were told that they know nothing of the three men.  Ward says:  "The first lie." 

The agents go to eat.  Ward goes and sits by a young black man.  This is a violation of the Mississippi segregation laws and the whites all stare at Ward and the young black man.  This frightens the man and he tells Ward that he has nothing to say to him.  The man gets up and leaves.  Anderson is upset with Ward for putting the black man in danger. 

The agents drive to the church that was burned down.  The three civil rights workers came out to apologize to the church members for putting them in danger.  They had wanted to use the church as a type of headquarters for a voter registration drive among the blacks.  The Klan burned down the church before any voting registration could be done.  Ward says they will go down and talk to a family that may have seen the three workers.  Anderson tells Ward that the black family isn't going to talk to him.  They are too afraid.  Ward just says:  "Bureau procedure."   The family says yes to Ward's description of what happened, but they also say they can't identify any of the men who burned the church down.

Three Klansmen bang on the door of the house of the black man, named Hollis, seen talking to Ward in the diner.  Hollis sees them and starts running for the hills.  The Klansmen catch up with him and beat him.  They warn him that they better not catch him talking to the FBI.   

Anderson and Ward are talking in their motel room when a shot gun blast busts out their front window.  A wooden cross burns in front of the motel.  Ward goes out to see if he can catch sight of the Klansmen.  He concludes that he needs more agents and puts in a call for them.  A bunch of agents come down to help Ward and Anderson.  They set up headquarters in an old, abandoned theater.  The rent is only $75 dollars per month. 

A young black man hides in a cotton container out in the cotton fields.  Into town comes the members of the KKK.  Ward starts running a check on their automobile plates.  Anderson goes into the white barber shop.  The sheriff and the mayor are there.  Mayor Tilman complains to Anderson about outsiders coming in trying to tell the whites how to live their lives.  The mayor says he bets the three missing men are up in Chicago having a big laugh about all the commotion they stirred up in Mississippi. 

One of the plates the FBI checked on belongs to Clayton Townley, the grand wizard of the white nights of the Klan.  They also have a lead.  A Choctaw Indian on the reservation thinks he knows where the missing car of the workers is.  In town Anderson goes into the local beauty parlor to see what he can learn.  One of the workers there is Mrs. Pell.  A car comes roaring down the dirt road of town.  They throw a black man from their car and drive away.  Sheriff Stuckey says to Anderson and Ward that this is just a local matter.  Anderson tells Ward that the beaten up black man is the one Ward endangered by speaking to him with a white audience present in the diner. 

Ward and Anderson and a lot of other FBI agents come out to speak to the Choctaw Indian, who lives right by the swamp.  He traipses through the water with the fifteen or so agents behind him until he gets to a rusted car in the swamp water.  The car is pulled out of the swamp by a tow truck.  No bodies are found in the car.  Ward says:  "I guess they never left Mississippi."  Anderson says:  "They're dead.  They're dead."   

Ward gets a hundred Naval reserve men to come out and help the FBI search the waters of the swamp.  A black home is destroyed by a bomb.  A black church is burned via a Molotov cocktail.  And another church meets the same fate.  And still more black churches are burned. 

Mrs. Pell provides an alibi for her husband, the deputy.  She says he was playing poker with friends for three hours.  Agent Bird tells Ward that the motel manager wants the FBI fellows out because they are hurting his motel business.  Ward tells agent Bird to buy the motel. 

The swamp search continues.  Stuckey tells the reporters that the FBI should be checking for the missing men in Canada and not in Mississippi.  Ward and Anderson go back to the burned out church that the workers were last at.  A young boy named Aaron  speaks out against Sheriff Stuckey.  There is a group of the congregation there, but everyone leaves except for Aaron and his father.  The boy tells the agents that they shouldn't be talking to colored people about the missing boys, but the sheriff and his office.

So Anderson and Ward go visit deputy Pell at his home.  He is mad as hell that the two agents are bothering him at home.  While Ward talks to Pell, Anderson talks to Mrs. Pell in the kitchen.  He thinks she knows a lot more than she is saying.    Mrs. Pell says she was born in this house that they now own.   Anderson says to Ward that the three men in the picture at Pell's wedding are all Klansmen. 

Anderson keeps an eye on Deputy Pell.  He follows his car around.  When he see him take a drunk home, Anderson goes to visit Mrs. Pell again.  He butters her up saying she looks much younger than she is.  Anderson asks her about the critical 50 minutes that Pell was with Mrs. Pell.  She backs up his alibi again. 

Klansmen attack a local church that Aaron attends.  They start beating the members of the congregation.  Even Aaron gets beaten.  The man who beats him is none other than Frank Bailey.  The swamp search continues.  Klansmen come out to watch the search from a bridge over a river.  

Clayton Townley talks to the press.  He tells them some of his racist ideas about Jew, papists and Negroes.  Anderson goes up to a private social club with a bar (in a dry state).  Deputy Pell and Frank Bailey are there.  Pell tells Anderson he is not allowed to drink here because he is not a member.  Anderson tells Pell to buy him a drink.  He does so.  Then Anderson starts telling Mississippi stories.  Frank starts talking ugly with Anderson, mentioning there may be a lot of dead niggers soon.  Anderson says to Frank:  "You'd kill, Frank?  Is that what you're saying?"  He then turns to Pell to ask him if he would kill?  Pell doesn't like Anderson riding him.  So Frank starts to talk really tough with Anderson, that is until Anderson grabs him by the balls and stops him in his tracks.  When he finally lets go, Frank falls over sideways in his chair.  Anderson leaves. 

Ward balls out Anderson for all the talk in town about FBI intimidation.  Anderson becomes furious at him for the comment.  He tells Ward that Mrs. Pell is not going to tell him anything that Deputy Pell doesn't want her to say.  Ward reminds him:  "This can of worms only opens from the inside."  Anderson says:  "I know that."

In town there is a black protest march with some white participation.  Anderson goes to see Mrs. Pell again.  Deputy Pell sees the two in the beauty parlor window and doesn't like what he sees.  At night Anderson and Ward stake out the police station.  A black man is released from jail and is immediately chased down by the Klan in a pickup truck.  The agents gives chase to the pickup truck.  The KKK get ahead of them because they just do get over a railroad line before the train comes rolling through.  The agents have to wait for the train to pass.  After the train goes by, the agents restart their chase.  Through some lucky moves, they are able to find the released black man after he has been beaten, but before he is killed.   The KKK fellows flee the scene.  

Ward wants the black man to press charges, but the family of the young man is scared of what might happen to their boy.  Based on what they saw the previous night, Ward figures that Pell arrested and then held the three civil rights workers until the Klan could get themselves organized.  Then he released the workers when the Klansmen were ready to kill them.  Ward grills Pell about releasing the workers to the Klan.  He also asks Pell if he is a member of the Klan.  Later the mayor tries to intimidate the agents to get then to stop accusing the sheriff's office of misconduct.  Ward and Anderson both stand up to the mayor. 

Mrs. Pell drives home.  Anderson follows her.  Mrs. Pell realizes that Anderson is there. 

The Klan comes back to the black area to fire bomb a home.  Ward examines the burnt down house.  Anderson has an idea and Ward let's him go ahead with it.  Aaron helps the agents talk to a young boy who saw the faces of the Klansmen and their pickup truck.  The boy rides with the agents with a box over his head with a hole cut out for the eyes.  He identifies the Klansmen.  The judge gives the Klansmen five years in prison, but then, immediately suspends the sentences, because, as he says, they were provoked by all the outside agitators in the area.  The blacks in the area riot and some houses are burned.  The local police won't let the agents go into the burning area. 

Frank Bailey and his boys set fire to the home of Aaron and his family.  They hang his father from a tree.  Aaron is able to get his father down after the Klansmen leave and before his daddy strangles to death.  Anderson and Ward investigate the burned out home.  The FBI is sending the family up to Detroit to be with relatives.  Ward again reminds Anderson of the need to break Pell's alibi via Mrs. Pell. 

The FBI attend a local Klan rally.  The local police ask the FBI to leave.  Anderson goes to see Mrs. Pell again.  She tells him this whole thing is so ugly.  This time Mrs. Pell tells Anderson that her husband drove one of the cars that fateful night of June 21.  She also tells him that the bodies are buried on the Roberts farm in an earthen dam. 

The FBI search the earthen dam and find the three bodies.  Agent Bird gets sick and vomits at the sight of the bodies.  The bodies are brought in.   Sheriff Stuckey tells Pell to get on home and deal with the problem he has there.  He does go home with three Klansmen and he beats his wife up badly. 

Ward tells Bird to get five agents and come with him.  They secure the hospital to protect Mrs. Pell.  Anderson comes in and sees Mrs. Pell all beaten up.  He turns around to go get Pell.  Ward chases after him to tell him not to kill Pell.  Anderson starts to beat up Ward, until Ward takes out his pistol and holds it to Anderson's head.  Ward says he will shoot Anderson if he doesn't listen to him.  He says he will agree to Anderson's way to get Pell and the others (but without any killing). 

A funeral is held for Chaney.  The mothers of the other two white civil rights workers are at the funeral.  The FBI brings in some outside agents.  They kidnap the mayor.  A black agent threatens to kill Lester by castrating him.  The mayor gets so scared that he starts singing.  He names Lester Cowans among other men.  Once they have the information, the black agent is flown home.  The FBI knows now that Pell and Bailey did the actual killing and it was Clayton Townley's idea.     

The FBI calls a meeting of the killers in a white church.  Townley asks them who called this meeting?  It dawns on the men that the FBI must have called the meeting.  Townley tells the men that they are all just going to walk out without saying anything.  Bailey threatens Lester to keep his mouth shut.  The FBI pay a visit to Lester's place of work.  Anderson tells Lester they will give him that ride home.  This is deliberately all done with the other white workers watching.  They then force Lester outside.  They take him for a ride.  Lester says he won't talk. 

Anderson tells Lester that his buddies have already talked.  They know he drove the second car and what he said about getting to kill a nigger.  They drive Lester to the black part of town and let him out.  Lester is very afraid and starts running out of there. 

At the barber shop, Anderson takes over the shaving job of Deputy Pell from the barber.  He starts nicking Pell's skin with the razor.  Anderson tells Pell what he said after they buried the three workers in the earthen dam  --  about how Mississippi is proud of them.  After Ward leaves the barber shop, Anderson roughs up Pell, throwing him around the room. 

The Klan comes a calling at Lester's house.  He runs out the back way and jumps into his pickup truck.  The Klan follow Lester and force him to stop on a dirt road.  Lester makes a run for it but the Klan members grab him.  They are going to hang him, but the FBI arrives in the knick of time.  The three Klansmen start running across an open field.  The FBI shoot at them.  Wade and Anderson tell Lester that if he goes on the record they will give him protection from the Klan.  Lester agrees.  (It turns out that the whole affair was an FBI set up with no Klan involvement at all.) 

The FBI comes for Frank Bailey.  He tries to run, but he's soon surrounded. 

Bailey is sentenced to 10 year imprisonment for violation of Civil Rights laws.  Lester gets 3 years.  Floyd Swilley gets 7 years.  Pell gets 10 years.  Sheriff Stuckey is acquitted.  Wesley Cooke gets 7 years.  Clayton Townley gets 10 years.  The mayor hangs himself.  (No one serves more than 6 years.)

Anderson visits Mrs. Pell in her torn-up house.  She says she is staying in the house where she was born.  Her face is still cut and bruised.  She says things will work out. 


Good, entertaining movie with a catharsis.  William Dafoe and Gene Hackman were great as the two principal FBI agents.  Frances McDormand was very good as Mrs. Pell and Brad Dourif was very good as Deputy Pell.  The catharsis is good because you get to see the racist bad guys arrested and punished.  One of the worst Klan leaders was Samuel Bowers (known as Clayton Townley in the movie).  He was connected with five murders of civil rights workers in the Freedom Summer of 1964.   And in 1966 he was connected to the murder of black activist Vernon Dahmer.  The bastard Klan leader died in prison at age 82. 

The movie was not liked by many in the civil rights movement.  The head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was a real racist and hated Martin Luther King.  He tried to cause strife in King's marriage by sending Mrs. King recordings of her husband having sex with white women.  Hoover was regarded as an American hero, but now he's known to haven been American scum.  He would not go after organized crime because the mob had photos of him having sex with men.  Hoover was also a black-mailer, threatening to use the sex files he had against President John F. Kennedy.  The man should have been in jail, rather than be head of the FBI.  Hoover did as little as possible for the civil rights movement, because he was as racist as Bull Connor from Birmingham, Alabama. 

The movie makes the FBI agents the heroes of the day, when they were no such thing.  The FBI got their tip about the burial place using money rewards.  Forty years after the murder, journalist Jerry Mitchell and teacher Barry Bradford uncovered the identity of the informant.  It was Maynard King, a highway patrolman who had been tipped off by Klansman Pete Jordan.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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