Explication of a key scene from
Through a close reading of the sequence presenting Mrs Pell’s beating and hospitalization, show how Mississippi Burning implies that Civil Rights were achieved by white men acting as maverick heroes.
Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning is based on real events that contributed significantly to the 1960’s Civil Rights movement for American Negroes. The film chooses to focus on the exploits of two FBI agents who arrive in a corrupt Southern US town to sort out racism, solve a crime and seemingly in the process single-handedly achieve civil rights for Mississippi’s Negroes. Their initial investigation is into the (factual) disappearance of three civil rights workers, but the film rapidly develops both classic thriller elements of conspiracy and murder, as well as romance, by following the tension between the two leading investigators, Agent Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Agent Anderson (Gene Hackman).
Anderson’s relationship with Deputy Sheriff Pell’s wife (Frances McDormand) not only develops as generic romance – neglected wife meets gentle and charming out-of-towner – but gives the FBI an opening into the “can of worms” of the town’s Ku Klux Klan conspiracy. The sequence presenting Mrs Pell’s hospitalization is crucial to bringing these elements of the film’s plot together: Anderson’s love affair; disunity amongst the KKK; and the conflict between Ward and Anderson over their investigative methods. Parker achieves this by constructing a narrative sequence that parallels two scenes of violence within each of the film’s opposed groups, the KKK and the FBI. The resulting contrast between the former’s misogynistic violence, and the latter’s masculine settling of differences strongly enhances the film’s underlying bias towards white maverick heroes.
The scene of Mrs Pell’s attack is set in her lounge room interior and begins in warm lighting with the diegetic sounds of audience laughter and a light-hearted comedy act coming from the television. A low camera establishes Mrs Pell’s point of view relaxed in an armchair. With the entry of her husband followed by three large white men, the atmosphere of the scene instantly changes. As Deputy Pell grabs his wife and begins to beat and throw her around the room, steady-cam shots and a rapid pan accentuate the violence. The remainder of the scene uses a montage of low angle reaction shots of the impassive male KKK onlookers, and off camera sounds of breaking furniture and pummelled flesh. The effect is a chilling portrayal of domestic violence perpetrated in the service of a brutal male-only secret society. = topic sentence concludes the paragraph to summarise the overall impact of the analysed scene A cut to the noisy and brightly lit public hustle of FBI headquarters in the local cinema reveals a close up of whiskey poured into a paper cup, encoding the heightened level of tension in the ongoing investigation. The camera pans up and out to follow Agent Ward answering a phone call. The logic of the editing sequence tells us that news of Mrs Pell’s beating has reached the FBI. This short segue ends with a medium close up of Ward’s anxious expression.
The following scene returns to another relative quiet, this time of a hospital’s downstairs lobby, being similarly disturbed by a surprise entrance: Agent Ward violently throwing open the front doors and shouting orders to his other agents. It quickly cuts to a dimly lit interior of Mrs Pell’s upstairs hospital room, with a pensive Ward already sitting by her bedside indicating some passage of time. A minimal use of short shots establishes the horrific extent of her injuries and Ward’s anxious wait for Anderson to arrive. A cut to a low angle from Ward’s point of view then prepares us for Anderson’s breathless entrance at the room door. A rapid glance is all he needs before rushing out again, quickly followed by Agent Ward. Chasing Anderson down the corridor, Ward warns him not to rashly seek an illegal or violent revenge, but Parker ingeniously has the two men catch up with each other halfway down the stairs. Filmed in low angle from the lobby below, this confrontation has all the pent up frustration behind it, not only of the whole murky case but the ongoing tension between them over their conflicting methods of investigation.
Exchanging insults over their different attitudes to the case, Ward’s superior rank as another of their private issues is symbolised by his higher position on the staircase. The parallels with Deputy Pell’s violent scene begin to emerge as internal and ‘domestic’ disagreement spill over into angry confrontation. But the contrasts are equally significant. There, the shock of the violence was exacerbated by the total lack of any prelude or dialogue. Here, the tension has been hinted at, anticipated and even openly vented in albeit angry speech. Furthermore, the domestic interior space of a private home has been exchanged for a public hospital. Even in that Parker extends the contrast by having the two antagonists, in a coded sign of old-fashioned civility, take their disagreement literally outside.
The final frames of their confrontation are shot on the sidewalk beyond the hospital doors. Beneath a bright streetlamp, actual physical aggression is sparked by Ward’s final retaliatory insult to Anderson: “At least I’m not partial to foolin’ around with witnesses”. With that, Anderson swings a punch at Ward and a tussle ensues landing them both on the bonnet of a car. Physically it seems Anderson has at last gained the upper hand on his ‘partner’, as he pins Ward to the car. But just as suddenly the power balance is reversed when Ward flips Anderson over and pulls a gun on him. Filmed in mid-shot, the camera remains neutral while still involving the audience in the tension of the moment. Unlike the Pell’s domestic violence, where horror is evoked by what we can only hear to imagine, the sight of one FBI agent holding a loaded gun to his partner’s head, coupled with Dafoe’s expressive grimace, acts to release the film’s pent up tension in a conscious and purposeful way. As the two men rise from the car with Anderson’s aggressive posture daring Ward to actually use his gun, the latter finally announces his agreement to finish the investigation Anderson’s “way” – “We go after them any way we can”. Despite (or perhaps because of) the gun symbolically restoring Ward’s power and authority, his habitually impeccable suit now thoroughly dishevelled helps to symbolise his move into Anderson’s moral territory. But this throwing away of Ward’s beloved rule book signals, not so much his capitulation to Anderson’s unconventional but ‘old-school’ methods, as a necessity called for by the evil perpetrated by these Southern racists.
A final contrasting parallel with the Pell scene is the role of witnesses to the violence. Parker uses the stone faced vigilance of the three KKK accomplices – no doubt present to ensure Pell did what he was told in silencing his errant wife – to emphasise the callous inhumanity of the group and all they stand for. With Ward and Anderson, the discretion of their aggressive outburst is heightened by the absence of any onlookers. However one agent remaining inside the hospital doors is clearly an aural witness, as Anderson asks him immediately after his fight with Ward “Do you think he would’ve shot me?”. Mr Bird’s deadpan response of “Yes sir, he most certainly would have”, followed by Anderson’s “Ballsy little bastard, aint he?”, not only provides some comic relief from the short explosion of violence, but characterises the FBI in complete contrast to the KKK, as an open, pragmatically masculine organisation that follows tough but essentially ‘gentlemanly’ codes.
The rest of the film follows the FBI’s gradual unravelling of the KKK conspiracy surrounding the murders of the civil rights workers, through a series of highly unconventional, illegal and dramatic interrogations. But what makes this film’s justification of illegal means by a noble end even more unsavoury, is its effect in removing from history any clear sense of black people struggling to achieve their own justice and rights for themselves. While a token father and son stand up against the violence in the film, constantly reinforced by images of burning churches and firebombed homes, they too become helpless victims.
Lastly, this key sequence has at its emotional core a motivation for revenge against violence done to a white woman, not any black person. All those other victims of racial violence, going back hundreds of years and millions of individuals into slavery count for nothing, in this film’s logic, against one hapless and pretty victim of domestic abuse. Thus Mississippi Burning not only endorses ‘white maverick heroes’ like Anderson breaking a few laws to capture the KKK, but implies that without them, civil rights for black Americans would never have been achieved.