What if people on the left had real state power? We’ve all dreamed about it. What if we finally put on our brass knuckles and punched the nearest teabagger in the face? What if the federal government went back into the south, took over the same Florida court system that’s legalized killing blacks, and “stood its ground.” What if we finally broke the Neo Confederate cancer that’s ruining America once and for all?
The fantasy of state power, and state power in the right hands, is at the center of Alan Parker’s 1988 Mississippi Burning. Mississippi Burning is one of a series of big-budget, Hollywood movies from the late 1980s and early 1990s that helped rehabilitate the public image of the FBI after the beating it took in the 1970s. Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film Silence of the Lambs re-imagines the FBI as a plucky young woman who saves a Senator’s daughter from a cross-dressing serial killer. 1987’s The Untouchables takes us back to the FBI’s heroic early days, where a clean cut all-American boy saves Chicago from Al Capone. Mississippi Burning not only rehabilitates the Bureau. It rehabilitates Cointelpro.
As the film opens, we are in a car on a back country road in Mississippi. Three young men, loosely fictionalized versions of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, are being pursued by two cars, a pickup truck, and a police car. It’s a terrifying scene, especially since anybody who’s studied the history of the Civil Rights Movement knows exactly what’s going to happen. The local police are working with the Klan and the Klan is working with the local police police. “All I’ve got left is a nigger,” one of the Klansman says after the three young men are murdered in cold blood. “But at least I shot me a nigger.”
In the next scene we are in a Chevy Impala driving south out of Tennessee and into Mississippi. The driver, Agent Ward, is a senior FBI agent. He’s stiff, formal, and dressed in the classic FBI uniform of a dark suit and a white shirt. He’s got a severe pair of eyeglasses that codes him as “Ivy League intellectual.” Ward’s companion, Agent Rupert Anderson played by a brilliant Gene Hackman, is his opposite. In addition to being a rehabilitation of Cointelpro, Mississippi Burning is also a buddy movie. Anderson’s an easy going good ol boy from the south, a former small town sheriff from Thornton Mississippi. He’s reading from the case file, or, rather, he’s singing, having a good laugh at a KKK drinking song. You’d never guess judging by his rumpled, laid back dress that he works for J. Edgar Hoover.
Rupert Anderson is as much of a liberal as Agent Ward. The contrast between the two men is not so much their ideology as their style. Anderson wants to keep things low key, to sniff around without drawing any unnecessary attention to themselves. Ward doesn’t see it that way. After both agents are attacked by the Klan, who burn a cross in front of their motel room, Ward makes a phone call to Washington. Soon Jessup County Mississippi is crawling with FBI agents. The FBI, in effect, becomes an occupying army. They take over the town’s movie theater. They buy the motel, and eventually establish a kind of “dual power.” The FBI has all the muscle. They can go anywhere they want anytime they want.
But the Klan still controls the local police, city government, and courts. Jessup County’s blacks know the FBI’s occupation is no more permanent than Radical Reconstruction, that all the agents will be going back home as soon as they find the bodies of the three civil rights workers. The FBI can’t even find the bodies of the murdered Civil Rights workers anyway. Ward’s big government liberalism has hit a dead end. Anderson, however, is beginning to make progress.
The Klan and their chief asset in the local police, Deputy Clinton Pell, soon learn that Rupert Anderson is not a man to be fucked with. Clinton Pell is a spectacularly nasty little man, a strutting little cock of the walk who keeps the town’s blacks, and his own wife, in a perpetual state of terror. After Anderson realizes that Pell’s wife is the weak link, that she’s been coerced into giving her husband an alibi for the night of the murder, he cracks the case. She tells him where the bodies of the civil rights workers are buried. Deputy Pell, knowing that he’s in deep trouble, and that it was almost certainly his wife who ratted him out, beats her to a pulp and sends her to the hospital.
Clinton Pell will soon regret beating his wife. The last 30 minutes of Mississippi Burning are the payoff we’ve been waiting for. Agent Ward, the film’s stand in for John F. Kennedy, has finally had enough. It’s time to release the hell hounds of Cointelpro against Deputy Clinton Pell and Jessup County’s Ku Klux Klan. Anderson tortures Clinton Pell in a barber shop. He slaps him around like the nasty little fascist he is. While Agent Ward seems to have some qualms about the FBI torturing a suspect, we don’t. Clinton Pell deserves every once of the beating he gets. Ward, Anderson, and another group of agents crash a KKK meeting, writing down license plate numbers while the Klansmen whine about their Constitutional rights. They set the Klansmen against one another. Three FBI agents kidnaps one Klansman and pretends to lynch him before other agents “rescue” him. He’s more than willing to talk.
In other words, Anderson and Ward go through Jessup County Mississippi like Sherman marching through Georgia. What would it look like if the bad asses and strongmen were on the side of the left instead of the right? It would look like Mississippi Burning.
Alas, Parker has waived the red cape. We charged like a bull. It’s a fake out.
While it’s true that the American ruling class by 1964 was ready to get rid of Jim Crow and Johnson did lean on J. Edgar Hoover to solve the murders of Schwener, Cheney and Goodman, Mississippi Burning essentially writes SNCC out of history. The FBI went into Mississippi in 1964 because grassroots activists forced them to. They occupied lunch counters. They road segregated buses. They registered voters. Mississippi Burning, while briefly acknowledging the grassroots activism of the Civil Rights Movement, gives most of the credit to the FBI. We’re even shown Agent Ward marching with black activists in a funeral procession.
Indeed, J. Edgar Hoover was a racist himself. Far more FBI dirty tricks were directed against the Civil Rights Movement than against the Klan. What’s more, throughout Mississippi Burning, blacks are shown almost exclusively as terrified victims. They’re lynched, castrated, put into cages, terrorized. If I were black this film would have sent me into a rage. That’s entirely the intention. By the time Pell beats up his wife, we’re ready to see a black character, any black character hit back. We get that avenging black man in the form of a “specialty man” Anderson sends to Washington for. Anderson’s “specialty man” kidnaps the Klan friendly mayor, takes him to a shack out in the backwoods, and tortures him into spilling his guts.
Mississippi Burning, unlike Zero Dark Thirty, is gleefully pro-torture. But we’ve been had, fooled, bamboozled. In reality, the “specialty man” who helped break the case in Philadelphia Mississippi wasn’t an avenging black man at all, but Gregory Scarpa, the chief enforcer for the Colombo Crime Family.
“In the summer of 1964, according to Schiro and other sources,” Wikipedia tells us. “FBI field agents in Mississippi recruited Scarpa to come to Mississippi to help them find missing civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. The FBI was convinced the three men had been murdered, but could not find their graves. The agents thought that Scarpa, using illegal interrogation techniques not available to agents, might succeed at gaining this information from suspects. Once Scarpa arrived in Mississippi, local FBI agents allegedly provided him with a gun and money to pay for information. Scarpa and an FBI agent allegedly pistol-whipped and kidnapped Lawrence Byrd, a TV salesman and secret Klansman, from his store in Laurel and took him to Camp Shelby, a local Army base. At Shelby, Scarpa severely beat Byrd and stuck a gun barrel down his throat. The terrified Byrd finally revealed to Scarpa the location of the civil rights workers’ graves.”
‘The FBI has never officially confirmed the Scarpa story,” Wikipedia also tells us. But the FBI has a long history of involvement with organized crime. In the single case of Schwener, Chaney and Goodman, it might have done good. In every other case, those mobsters on the FBI payroll were strong arming labor leaders not Klansmen. We’ve been had.
We’ve succumbed to temptation, the dangerous fantasy of state power.