is a 1988 crime drama film
based on the FBI investigation into the real-life murders of three civil rights workers
in the U.S. state
in 1964. The movie focuses on two fictional FBI
agents (portrayed by Gene Hackman
and Willem Dafoe
) who investigate the murders. Hackman's character is loosely based on FBI agent John Proctor, and Dafoe's character is very loosely based on agent Joseph Sullivan
The film also stars Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey and Gailard Sartain, and was written by Chris Gerolmo and directed by Alan Parker. It won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Hackman), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (McDormand), Best Director, Best Film Editing (Gerry Hambling), 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 Neshoba County
where the real murders took place). Agent Alan Ward (Dafoe) is a northerner who takes a direct approach to the investigation. Agent Rupert Anderson (Hackman), a southerner who understands the intricacies of race relations in the south, takes a more subtle tack. The two clash but eventually find a way to work together to take on the Klan.
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 intervening. It was also criticized due to its portrayal of southern African-Americans as passive victims. New York Times
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 contract killer Gregory S. Scarpa Jr.
the cinematic version may have come closer to the truth than the official FBI story out of Washington. 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
and Top Echelon FBI informant Gregory Scarpa Sr.
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. One such 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, Mississippi
. 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. 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, but 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 of interrogation."
One In 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, 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 an exact quote from U.S. Senator James Eastland who reportedly said when 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. Edgar Hoover who was being pressured by President Lyndon B. Johnson, 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. Gene Hackman is portrayed as a rougish FBI agent and Willem Dafoe as his button-downed partner, depicted informant being pried loose by a group of thuggish FBI operatives loyal to Hackman's character, Special Agent Anderson. The movie's FBI agents bullied potential suspects and witnesses, including the local mayor, who in one memorable scene is threatened with castration by a black agent holding a double-edged razor blade.
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
does 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 Schwerner
played by Geoffrey Nauffts, "Passenger" based on Andrew Goodman
played by Rick Zieff and "Black Passenger" based on James Chaney
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 opening scenes of the movie were some of the most harrowing ever seen in any film of the 1980s. An Apostolic church
was the first building seen in the film, ablaze with the Ku Klux Klan
calling card - a wooden cross - within a fierce inferno. The murder in the next scenes ended with the local county sheriff patrol car pursuing a saloon car (sedan) along a dirt road, where the deputy forced the driver to stop. The white Jewish
driver of the car was subjected to a string of derogatory insults including "Jew boy" and "nigger lover"
(in reference to his black
passenger); those two were shot dead along with the other white social worker.
On the set
Scenes in the courtroom and in and around the Sheriff's office were filmed in the old Carroll County Courthouse in Vaiden, Mississippi
. It was a dilapidated, early-19th Century structure, and falling brickwork threatened principals, crew and extras. The courthouse was demolished a few years later. Lawyer/actor Thomas Mason
played the judge in the courtroom scenes.
Two extras hired to play Naval Reservist searchers were nearly killed in Bovina, 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.
- Deadly Alliance: The FBI's Secret Partnership with the Mob by Ralph Ranalli