Here we go again. Exploiting white America's ignorance of historic racial oppression, Hollywood casts a spotlight on the rich but neglected story of the black struggle for equal rights. As has happened with every popular work on the subject, from Uncle Tom's Cabin to Roots, Mississippi Burning evokes a gasp of horrified discovery from many whites who act as if they are learning about the viciousness of slavery and segregation for the very first time. Unfortunately, the film does little to deepen the knowledge of its audience. Though its producers say the movie is fictional, they so artfully commingle fact and invention that many viewers, whose ability to discern a whopper when they see one has been obliterated by an age of TV docudramas, are convinced of its veracity. They leave the theater believing a version of history so distorted that it amounts to a cinematic lynching of the truth.
From its opening sequence, Burning convincingly recaptures the racial dread of 1964 Mississippi. But the verisimilitude is soon sacrificed for a bogus conclusion: that to protect the rights of blacks, the Federal Government sank to the same level of lawless terror occupied by the Ku Klux Klan. To the extent they appear at all, blacks are portrayed as ineffectual victims, helplessly waiting for the "Kennedy boys" to set them free. In due course, that is just what happens, as the FBI cracks the case by brutally intimidating a white witness.
Not much of this is within spitting distance of what really occurred. Even the little details in the film -- such as placing James Chaney, a black thoroughly familiar with the terrifying back roads of Neshoba County, in the backseat of the station wagon he was actually driving -- relegate blacks to the background of the drama of which they were the real-life heroes. One gets no sense of their courageous struggle against violent white supremacy and second-class citizenship.
Even more twisted is the film's depiction of an FBI so zealous in its defense of black rights that it would resort to vigilantism to promote them. That contention is laughable to civil rights veterans of the early 1960s, who pleaded with the bureau to take a more active role in protecting blacks. Only two weeks before the murders, a delegation of Mississippi activists journeyed to Washington to implore federal officials to protect the civil rights workers who were flocking into the state for the Freedom Summer. Yet despite repeated appeals to the FBI and Justice Department on the night the three civil rights workers disappeared, nearby agents did not arrive in Philadelphia until the next day. By then it was too late.