is a 1988 crime drama film loosely based
on the FBI investigation into the real-life murders of three civil
rights workers in the U.S. state of Mississippi in 1964. The movie focuses on two fictional FBI agents
(portrayed by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) who investigate the
Hackman's character (Agent Rupert Anderson) is
loosely based on FBI agent John Proctor, and Dafoe's character
(Agent Alan Ward) is very loosely based on agent Joseph Sullivan
The film also stars Frances
, Brad Dourif
, R. Lee Ermey
, and was written by
and directed by Alan Parker
. It won the Academy Award for Best
, and was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role
(Hackman), Best Actress in a
(McDormand), Best Director
, Best Film Editing
), Best Picture
and Best Sound
The story is loosely based on the real-life murders of three civil
rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. After the three are
reported missing, two FBI agents are sent to investigate the
incident in rural Jessup County, Mississippi (modeled after
County where the real murders took place).
agents take two completely different approaches: Agent Alan Ward
(Dafoe), a northerner, takes a direct approach to the
investigation. Agent Rupert Anderson (Hackman), a former
Mississippi sheriff who understands the intricacies of race
relations in the south, takes a more subtle tack. It is very hard
for the two to work in the town, as the local police force run a
major branch of the Ku Klux Klan
the two agents cannot talk to the local African American community,
due to their fear of Klan attacks. Slowly but steadily, relations
between the FBI and the local Jessup County sheriff's office
deteriorate, as do relations between the two FBI agents. Things
boil over when the bodies are located and the Deputy Sheriff,
Clinton Pell realizes that his wife gave their locations to
Anderson and assaults her in a fit of anger. When Anderson sees her
in the hospital, he storms off to confront the Deputy but is
stopped by Ward. After a brief scuffle, the two agree that they
will work together and bring down the Jessup County branch of the
Ku Klux Klan using Anderson's as yet untried approach.
The new tactics begin when the mayor is abducted. He comes around
in a remote shack, alone except for an African American male
wearing a rudimentary mask, similar to those used by KKK members in
the film. Relating a story of how a young black male was castrated
by the KKK, he implies that the mayor will likewise be disfigured
unless he talks, by wielding a razor blade while relating the tale.
In reality, the abductor is an FBI operative specially flown in to
intimidate the mayor. Though not admissible in court, what the
mayor says gives investigators leads on pursuing the case.
Anderson sends fake invites to all the involved KKK parties who
turn up but soon realize it's a set up and don't discuss the
murders, they just leave. But not before the FBI, who are
eavesdropping, have spotted Lester Cowans, a junior member of the
outfit, as being particularly nervous and unable to stop talking.
He's later picked up by the FBI and driven prominently around town
as if he may be talking to them.
Anderson pays a visit to the barber shop where Deputy Clinton Pell
is receiving a shave with a cut-throat
. Anderson slips in the place of the barber allowing him
to ensure Pell stays still whilst Anderson threatens him, nicking
him with the razor. Anderson then administers a brutal beating on
Pell, both for his role in the murders and his assault of his wife.
Ward, waiting outside, can't stand hearing the beating and attempts
to go in but is stopped by the other FBI men Anderson has called in
to do things his way. Pell is left spinning round and round in a
barber's chair as Anderson leaves.
A nervous Lestor Cowans is at home when his window is shot out. On
the lawn outside is a burning cross
He tries to flee in his truck but is caught by three hooded men who
then start to hang him. Just then, the FBI arrive at the scene,
rescue Cowans, and chase the thugs to the sound of gunshots. Out of
sight, the abductors take off their masks - they are also FBI
agents. The ruse works. Cowans, thinking his life is in danger from
his KKK co-conspirators who think he'll talk, does just that. The
FBI now have evidence admissible in court and prosecute the
culprits. They charge them with Civil Rights violations to ensure
they will tried at the federal level; earlier four had been
convicted in a state court of firebombing a black man's home, only
to receive 5-year suspended sentences. Most are found guilty and
receive sentences from three to ten years. Sheriff Stuckey is
acquitted. The mayor, who wasn't charged, hangs himself.
The film has been criticized by many, including historian Howard Zinn
, for its fictionalization of
history. According to Zinn: while FBI agents are
portrayed as heroes who descend upon the town by the hundreds, in
reality the FBI and the Justice
Department only reluctantly protected civil rights workers and
protesters and reportedly witnessed beatings without
It was also criticized due to its portrayal of
southern African-Americans as passive victims. The image of
African-Americans as being passive also shapes the film's
reenactment of the assassinations;New
film reviewer wrote that the film's alleged
distortions amounted to a "cinematic lynching" of history.
Ironically, according to the testimony of Colombo crime family
Gregory S. Scarpa Jr. the cinematic version may have
come closer to the truth than the official FBI story out of
His story has been supported in several
news accounts by unnamed FBI agents purported to have worked on the
MIBURN case and Scarpa's own FD-209 reports that were released and
made public after his death. Gregory S. Scarpa Jr. has said that
his father, Colombo crime family capo
Top Echelon FBI informant Gregory
offered his services in the case to his FBI handler,
Anthony Villano. He made a three day trip to Mississippi, where
posing as a member of the national Ku Klux Klan himself, he and an
FBI helper kidnapped a local appliance salesman and Ku Klux Klan
member who was viewed by the FBI as a potential weak link in the
case. They took the man to a remote location, tied him to a chair,
and interrogated him. The first two times he told the story, the
agent and Scarpa believed that the man was lying. On the third try,
Scarpa pulled his gun on the suspect. "He said he took a gun
and put in the guy's mouth and said: For the last time, where are
the bodies or I'll blow your head off",
Gregory S. Scarpa Jr.
testified. Events similar to Scarpa Jr.'s story are reenacted in
the film. The KKK member finally confessed to the location of the
bodies, Scarpa Jr. said.
report, written in January 1966, states that Scarpa was later used
as a "special" — the FBI term for a nonagent working for the Bureau
in the murder of Vernon Dahmer, the
head of the NAACP office in Hattiesburg,
Dahmer's house was torched by the Ku Klux
Klan, and the memo states that Scarpa Sr. was sent to Hattiesburg
to work on the case. However, evidence from journalist Jerry Mitchell
Illinois high school teacher Barry Bradford, contradicts this
account. They claim that the informant who revealed the location of
the bodies was highway patrolman Maynard King, who gave the
information willingly to FBI agent Joseph Sullivan. The similarity
between Mr. Scarpa's account and the movie may be best explained by
the fact that Mr. Scarpa's testimony was recorded some years after
the movie was released. Both the Justice Department and the FBI
have officially declined to comment on any role Gregory Scarpa Sr.
may have played in the MIBURN. In Cartha DeLoach's account of the
MIBURN case in his memoir, Hoover's FBI he does not mention Scarpa.
It does say that a squad of COINTELPRO
agents were sent to interview members of the Ku Klux Klan and that
"many of them were big, bruising men, highly trained in the tactics
Cartha "Deke" DeLoach's official version is that the FBI paid for
its first big break in the case, which was for the location of the
bodies. In his memoirs he describes the men only as "a minister and
a member of the highway patrol." DeLoach does not say how the two men knew
that the three civil rights workers had been buried under twelve
feet of dirt in an earthen dam on a large farm located a few miles
outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, but said that the FBI paid $30,000 for the piece
of crucial information.
The quote said to the FBI agents by "Mayor Tilman" is paraphrased
from a quote from U.S. Senator James
who reportedly said when the three civil rights
workers (Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman) went
missing in Mississippi on June 21, 1964, "the incident is a hoax
and there is no Ku Klux Klan in the state; the three have gone to
Chicago" and that it was staged by the three young men to call
attention to their cause. J.
, who was being
pressured by President Lyndon B.
, was determined to break
the case. He flew down to Mississippi just before the first
anniversary of the disappearance, which was officially regarded as
a "kidnapping" to justify the FBI's involvement.
was preceded in 1975 by a television docudrama
titled Attack on Terror:
The FBI vs. the Ku Klux Klan
, depicting many of the same
events. Neither production gave the real names of the murderers,
due to legal considerations, and Mississippi Burning
not mention the victims (who are referred to as "The Boys") by name
in the film. In the film credits they are simply identified as
"Goatee" based on Michael
played by Geoffrey Nauffts, "Passenger" based on
played by Rick Zieff
and "Black Passenger" based on James
played by Christopher White. The film presents the
policeman's wife as the informant. The identity of the real
informant, known in history as "Mr. X.", was a closely held secret
for forty years. In the process of reopening the case, journalist
Jerry Mitchell and teacher Barry Bradford discovered his real name.
The mysterious black associate of Rupert Anderson who threatens to
castrate the mayor while he is bound to the chair is based on
Colombo crime family capo and FBI informant Gregory Scarpa Sr. The
character "Frank Bailey" played by Michael Rooker
is based on Alton Wayne Roberts
, Stephen Tobolowsky
as "Clayton Townley"
based on Samuel Bowers
and Pruitt Taylor Vince
as "Lester Cowans"
based on Edgar Ray Killen
The film's version of the assassinations, including most of the
dialogue, did not occur as in the real event; in the film, "Goatee"
is shot in the head, then the scene goes to a "blackout," where
sounds of additional gun shots are heard in rapid succession. In
reality, the victims were stopped, pulled from the station wagon,
and forced to get into the backseat of Deputy Sherriff Cecil Price
's car. Upon arrival at "Rock Cut
Road," Michael Schwerner
film's "Goatee") was pulled from the car, onto his feet by Alton Wayne Roberts
and shot. Roberts
then pulled Goodman from the car, shooting him to death. James Chaney
was the last to die, but unlike
the film, was beaten and shot several feet away from Price's
car—not in the station wagon backseat—as depicted in the
On the set
and around the sheriff's office and all courtroom scenes were
filmed in the old Carroll County Courthouse in Vaiden.
It was a dilapidated, early-20th century
(1905) structure, and falling
brickwork threatened principals, crew and extras. The courthouse
was demolished a few years later in 1989. Lawyer/actor Thomas Mason
played the judge in the courtroom
Many scenes were also shot on location in LaFayette, Alabama
. Prominently featured
in the movie is Chambers County Courthouse & courthouse
hired to play naval reservist searchers were nearly killed in
Mississippi, when they wandered from a temporary holding area
onto a high-arch railroad bridge over the Big Black River.
When a freight train
came along, they escaped injury
by huddling on a small pedestal on the edge of the bridge.
Native American extras
were hired from the Choctaw reservation near
filming began, some Mississippians were excited to know that Gene
Hackman would be doing for Mississippi what he did for Indiana with his 1986 film, "Hoosiers."
- Howard Zinn, "Federal Bureau of Intimidation"
- in the film, the "Goatee" character is driving the workers'
wagon, with the "Black Passenger" in the back seat, as it is
pursued by the Klan. In reality, African-American James Chaney was the driver
of the CORE station wagon that
entire, final day of the civil rights workers' lives. It was Chaney
who decided to make a last-ditch escape attempt by speeding away
from their soon-to-be executioners.**
- Jerry Mitchell, The Story Of The Real "Mr. X"
- Awards Internet Movie