1960s Civil Rights Struggles in 'Mississippi Burning'

Categories: Film


"Mississippi Burning," directed by Alan Parker in 1988, explores the historical events of 1964, specifically focusing on the disappearance of three civil rights workers. The film is a poignant depiction of the struggles faced by those advocating for civil rights, set against the backdrop of racial tensions in Jessup County, Mississippi. Parker's narrative skillfully unfolds through the eyes of FBI agents Anderson and Ward, who embark on a challenging investigation, unraveling the layers of corruption and prejudice that permeated the town during this tumultuous period.

Setting the Stage

The fictional town of Jessup County is not merely a backdrop but a character in itself, symbolizing the deeply ingrained segregation of the 1960s. The visual contrast between the whites inhabiting the town and the Blacks residing on the outskirts, in dilapidated houses, vividly illustrates the stark racial divisions. The choice of isolation as a metaphorical shield for the perpetrators underscores their belief that they could commit heinous crimes without attracting the attention of higher authorities.

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This setting becomes a crucial element, shaping the narrative and intensifying the impact of the civil rights struggle.

Historical Context

"Mississippi Burning" serves as a time capsule, encapsulating the social and political climate of the 1960s. The film strategically positions itself within a historical context marked by significant civil rights movements, including the Freedom Summer Movements and The Watts Riots of 1965. The presence of influential racial groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and corrupt authorities adds layers to the narrative, portraying the multifaceted challenges faced by those fighting for equality.

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Figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King become integral to the film's historical tapestry, providing a nuanced understanding of the era's complexities.

Character Dynamics

Ward and Anderson emerge as compelling characters, representing different approaches to justice. Ward, meticulously portrayed by William Dafoe, embodies a conservative methodology, meticulously adhering to established procedures. His formal attire and compliance with norms serve as visual cues, reflecting his commitment to the conventional route. In contrast, Anderson, brought to life by Gene Hackman, disrupts the status quo with his assertive approach. His casual attire and aggressive demeanor underline a willingness to challenge the entrenched systems of the time. These characters, with their divergent paths, contribute to the narrative's tension and eventual resolution.

Cinematic Techniques

The cinematic canvas of "Mississippi Burning" is rich with visual elements that enhance storytelling. Low-angle shots, strategically employed to capture power dynamics and vulnerability, take on added significance. For instance, the burning cross, depicted through a low-angle shot, becomes a potent symbol of supremacy and hatred. Extreme close-ups delve into the characters' emotional landscapes, providing viewers with intimate glimpses of their inner turmoil. Lighting, particularly the use of backlight, creates a suspenseful and eerie atmosphere, amplifying the intensity of pivotal scenes. The incorporation of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, including the soulful resonance of gospel singing, immerses the audience in the emotional tone of the film, forging a deeper connection with the narrative.

Post-1960s Context

Released in 1988 by Orion Productions, "Mississippi Burning" invites viewers to reflect on the progress made since the 1960s. While segregation had diminished in many communities, societal inequalities persisted. The film acknowledges the retreat of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the implementation of legal measures to protect individual rights. However, it also highlights the enduring remnants of prejudice, emphasizing the ongoing need for awareness and dialogue surrounding racial issues. The broader post-1960s context serves as a critical lens through which audiences can assess societal changes and continuities.

Controversies and Criticisms

The film's impact and reception are not without controversy. While some organizations praised "Mississippi Burning" for shedding light on the struggles of "blacks" during the 1960s, critics voiced concerns about certain portrayals. The depiction of "blacks" as helpless and the heroization of the FBI sparked debates about the film's narrative choices. Critics also questioned the stereotyping of all Mississippians as racists, urging a nuanced exploration of diverse perspectives within the region. These controversies underscore the complexities filmmakers face when navigating the fine line between historical representation and creative interpretation.

Impact and Reception

The lasting impact of "Mississippi Burning" is evident in its dual role as both a historical document and a cinematic creation. The film successfully raises awareness about the struggles faced by "blacks" during the 1960s, serving as a powerful tool for educating audiences about this pivotal period. Organizations and individuals commend the film for its unflinching portrayal of the harsh realities of racial injustice. However, ongoing debates about the accuracy and fairness of the depiction highlight the complexities inherent in translating historical events to the cinematic medium.

Reflecting on "Mississippi Burning," the nuanced portrayal of historical events and characters becomes even more apparent. The choice of cinematic techniques not only adds artistic value but also conveys powerful messages about power dynamics and emotions. Low-angle shots, for instance, showcase the symbolism behind certain visuals, enhancing the narrative's impact.

The characters, Ward and Anderson, represent contrasting approaches, reflecting the diversity of responses to civil rights issues in the 1960s. While Ward's conservative method aligns with established norms, Anderson's assertiveness challenges the status quo. This duality adds depth to the narrative, prompting viewers to contemplate the varied responses to injustice during that era.

The controversies surrounding the film raise essential questions about representation. Critics rightly point out the potential pitfalls of portraying certain groups as helpless or heroizing particular entities. This underscores the responsibility filmmakers carry in presenting historical narratives with sensitivity and accuracy, avoiding stereotypes that could perpetuate misconceptions about certain communities.

Examining the impact and reception of "Mississippi Burning" reveals its dual role as both a historical document and a cinematic creation. The film's ability to generate awareness about past struggles is commendable. However, ongoing debates about accuracy emphasize the challenges of balancing artistic expression with a commitment to historical truth.

This analysis deepens the understanding of the complexities involved in historical storytelling. It serves as a reminder of the ethical considerations and responsibilities that come with representing real events, especially those tied to sensitive issues like racial discrimination. "Mississippi Burning" stands as a testament to the power of cinema in preserving and transmitting historical narratives, urging audiences to engage critically with the stories presented on screen.


In conclusion, "Mississippi Burning" remains a significant cinematic exploration of the civil rights struggles in 1960s Mississippi. While capturing the essence of the era, the film employs various cinematic techniques to immerse the audience in the narrative. The characters, setting, and controversies surrounding the film contribute to its enduring impact and provoke thoughtful discussions about the challenges of representing historical events on screen.

Updated: Jan 17, 2024
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1960s Civil Rights Struggles in 'Mississippi Burning'. (2016, Jul 04). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/analysis-of-mississippi-burning-movie-essay

1960s Civil Rights Struggles in 'Mississippi Burning' essay
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