Monday, December 09, 2013

Dramatizing the Stories of History

Anderson (Gene Hackman): You know, if I were a Negro, I'd probably think the same way they do.

Ward (Willem Dafoe): If you were a Negro, nobody would give a damn what you thought.

I grew up on what might be considered the fringes of Ground Zero in the civil rights movement.

I grew up in Arkansas, which was not where the era's most violent episodes occurred — but it was near by.

There were still racial issues in Arkansas when I was a child, even though it had been many years since the integration crisis at Little Rock's Central High drew the attention of the nation. That got ugly at times, but never (to my knowledge) deadly.

But as far as Mississippi was concerned, Arkansas might have been in the next hemisphere in those days rather than just across the river. People were dying in Mississippi. They were lynched or shot — or otherwise killed in a variety of creative ways.

Perhaps the most notorious such case during the civil rights era was the killing of three civil rights workers, two (both white) from "up north" and one (black) from Mississippi, who were abducted and murdered in 1964 while preparing for Freedom Summer.

Set against that backdrop was "Mississippi Burning," a largely fictional account of that time that premiered on this date 25 years ago.

In "Mississippi Burning," there were three missing civil rights workers, and the stories shared certain similarities, but the case that was described in "Mississippi Burning" was not a literal re–telling of the story from 1964.

To borrow a line from "Absence of Malice," it wasn't true — but it was accurate. It told a story that was all too common in the South in those days. Even when the fact that it was seen through the lens of the late 20th century was accounted for, the federal agents were more heroic and principled than many of their real–life counterparts.

Anderson: You know, when I was a little boy, there was an old Negro farmer lived down the road from us name of Monroe. And he was, well, I guess he was just a little luckier than my daddy was. He bought himself a mule. That was a big deal around that town. Now, my daddy hated that mule, 'cause his friends were always kiddin' him about oh, they saw Monroe out plowin' with his new mule, and Monroe was gonna rent another field now that he had a mule. And one morning that mule just showed up dead. They poisoned the water. And after that there was never any mention about that mule around my daddy. It just never came up. So one time, we were drivin' down the road and we passed Monroe's place and we saw it was empty. He'd just packed up and left, I guess. Gone up North, or somethin'. I looked over at my daddy's face — and I knew he'd done it. And he saw that I knew. He was ashamed. I guess he was ashamed. He looked at me and he said: 'If you ain't better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?' He was an old man just so full of hate that he didn't know that bein' poor was what was killin' him.

Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe played the FBI agents dispatched to Mississippi to investigate the disappearances, but they had certain obstacles to overcome. The two had different backgrounds — Dafoe's character was from the North, Hackman's was from the South. Hackman was older; Dafoe was younger. Dafoe was idealistic and didn't really understand the culture; Hackman did understand the culture.

But understanding the culture was only part of the challenge. The rest of it was getting people to trust enough to talk. The blacks were reluctant to talk for fear of retribution from the white power structure, which was intimately involved with the Ku Klux Klan. The whites wouldn't talk because to talk would mean to implicate their friends and associates — and invite violence against themselves and their families.

It was an ugly chapter in American history, to be sure, and the movie about it sparked some pretty ugly moments when it was released. I guess the subject matter stirred up some dormant issues — or perhaps not–so–dormant ones that had been suppressed — often (perhaps unintentionally) by the very people who sought to shed light on them.

At the time, I remember some complaints from people who felt the movie should have been more accurate about the historical event that inspired it. The most famous example probably was a review in TIME magazine that called the movie a "cinematic lynching" of the facts — but the movie's director, Alan Parker, frequently reminded moviegoers at the time that it was a dramatization, not a documentary.

I understood Parker's position, but I felt at the time — and I still feel — he did a disservice to the truth.

Given some of the images Parker used (like the above image of clearly separate water fountains that were provided for whites and blacks), viewers could be forgiven for not always being able to tell the difference between dramatization and documentary.

But everyone knew what inspired the movie. Only the names had been changed, really — well, and some of the details were different, too. The name of the county where the real murders took place was Neshoba County; in the movie, it was Jessup County (to my knowledge, there is no Jessup County anywhere in the United States, let alone Mississippi).

The movie got plenty of recognition. I was particularly pleased that Frances McDormand was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as the deputy's wife who was severely beaten for giving information on the bodies' whereabouts to the agents. She sometimes gets a bum rap, I think. Depending upon the role she has played and where that character lived, audiences have often mistaken her for the character.

That's an indication of how talented she is, I guess, and her talent was rewarded by the Oscars eight years later when she appeared in "Fargo." But she didn't win an Oscar for "Mississippi Burning."

Hackman, who has a problem similar to McDormand's, was nominated for Best Actor. Parker was nominated for Best Director. The movie was nominated for Best Picture. None of the nominations "Mississippi Burning" received led to a victory.

In a memorable moment, Hackman's character took the place of the barber while the deputy (Brad Dourif) was in the chair getting a shave. He proceeded to beat him. I'm not sure how accurate that was. My memory of that time (and I was quite young in the '60s) is that there were not many federal agents who were prepared to do that kind of thing in a Southern town.

"Make no mistake about it, Deputy. I'll cut your fucking head clean off and not give a shit how it reads in the report sheet!"

The murders of the civil rights workers in Mississippi was an important story in the history of the American civil rights movement, and it deserved a lot more movie attention than it had received by the time "Mississippi Burning" made it to the theaters. Only one TV movie of which I am aware dealt with the subject — more than 10 years after the killings — before that time, and only one has made the theatrical rounds since.

But they are always fictional accounts, never a complete re–telling of what happened. The people who make those movies, in addition to being few and far between, seem to be caught betwixt and between their determination to tell the truth — and, at the same time, not tell too much of it.

The lessons of history are never served when the facts are altered.