[1988] Mississippi Burning

As years progress, I’m continuously uncertain whether the majority of us understands right and wrong. Granted, this distinction is often not as binary as we’d like it to be (and using “objectively” to preface any extremely non-objective statement, e.g. “objectively, billionaire philanthropy is wrong,” is an instant way to open oneself up to semantic argument). But there are objective, ipso facto rights and wrongs, chiefly, slavery and the subjugation of other humans, is objectively wrong. There’s no justification for it. And yet it happened, and is happening by other names, today, still, even though there’s no justification for it. There’s a long treatise on Wait But Why that I won’t rehash here in full, but Tim makes an incredible argument about parametric power and I believe him.

Mississippi Burning, released in 1988, rehashed a still-unsettled incident from 1964. It commented on the maddening fact that the United States has subjugated Black people to non-entity-at-best for over what was then 300 years.  That’s fifteen generations of families first enslaved and then discarded as other. It’s pathetic but powerful that we still have to say this in 2020, over four hundred years—20 generations—later: Black Lives Matter.

The movie splits time between recounting the deaths of three Civil Rights activists, killed for their work in Mississippi in 1964 registering Black citizens to vote, and the relationship between two buddy/FBI agents sent to investigate their murders. These stories work in tandem, with built-in pressure points, perhaps even counter-intuitive ones, like the state government willfully ignoring the Federal directive to integrate at least, tolerate at best. The interplay between Gene Hackman and Willem Defoe is another pressure point, and is a strong analogue for the old adage of “missing the forest for the trees,” which almost allows the bad actors to win. But there are four other pressure points that help craft this story—the timing and our collective memories of MISSBURN—Mississippi Burning.

1619: The first documented year of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade and the first year Africans were ripped from their ancestral homes to engage in slave labor in the United States. It’s hard to say whether the attitudes toward Africans, then toward Black Americans, existed because of the slave trade or whether centuries of power consolidation and colonization among “nation states” drove the desire to buy and sell other humans. Both attitudes exist in perpetuity.

The New York Times published a tremendous and melancholy retrospective in 2019, four hundred years later, called The 1619 Project. It’s a sobering history lesson and teachable guide to the horrors of the racial injustice the United States has practiced, and still practices. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable read as even the most liberal and anti-racists among us still have to reckon with the fact that a government actively pursued purchasing and trading other humans under the most brutal conditions.

1964: Over three hundred years after Americans began the horrific slave trade; over one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation; over seventy years since the inception of the Jim Crow South; over ten years since Brown vs. Board of Education three young men—two white, one Black—were killed after a runaround catch-and-release scheme trapped the men in the clutches of the Klan’s vindictive hate. The state government refused to investigate so the FBI—a Federal agency—needed to intervene to charge those involved on counts of civil rights infractions—not even murder—since murder is a state crime (in most circumstances).

The hate runs deep, yes in the South, but it’s embedded in Northern culture, too, but by any other name. Well-meaning white people fail miserably all the time at anti-racism. In 1964, you can likely still hear the faint refrain of “…states’ rights…” from southern whites hell bent on registering Black people to vote. The events surrounding the Freedom Summer murders are prima facie horrific. But the fact that American civil rights transformed from owning humans to simply removing them from existence shows little change, contempt for humanity, and wow, all in the greatest country in the world.

1988: Twenty-four years after the murders and impish results thereof, it was time(?) to fictionalize  the story and borrow its main parts to make a movie about them. In 24 years, the racist Right has learned the say the loud part quiet. The dog whistle isn’t so soft though. It’s important to note that in 1988, race “relations” haven’t come close to normalization, and Mississippi Burning is a clever nod to new members of the vaunted left, self-righteously losing a third term in a row to a Republican who’d like nothing more than to pretend America has always been great and these murders were an aberration and not the norm for 350 years. America is in rapid freefall, but profits are up, and the DOW looks great, so that’s cool. This attitude, along with the desire to delegitimize millions of people’s lived experiences, exist in perpetuity.

2020: The dog whistle is now just a whistle, and white racists have found it more expedient to simply put on a badge and kill Black people now, dispensing with the dance they’ve faked for 165 401 years. The open contempt for people of color has reached new and eventful lows as America is tearing itself apart. The good news is that the murders portrayed in Mississippi Burning (and happened in real life) would get solved relatively quickly as there’s no hiding bodies anymore. The bad news is that the state would decline to prosecute and the federal government no longer exists, so an appropriate title for the 2020 remake is America Burns, with no firefighters in sight.

Rain Man won the honor for Best Picture in 1988—sort of a goofy, serious year compared to others. The competition—Working GirlThe Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons and Mississippi Burning fill out a pick ’em year. Dustin Hoffman’s sympathetic take on a person with autism likely lifted this movie to the top of the pack; his chemistry with an effervescent Tom Cruise is subjectively better than Hackman/Defoe, though not by much. The other three movies are cute and forgettable by Oscar terms, but I’ll always look to Working Girl as an example of a low-brow, high-execution dramedy and as an example of a fun movie that can also win awards.

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