Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning received a number of mixed reviews across the board. Many express the controversial way in which the film strays from the actual events of 1964. But the reviews emphasize director Parker’s and writer Chris Gerolmo’s ability to bring the historical events to life, while producing some brilliant performances by the actors involved. [Excerpts from many of the as yet unannotated reviews can be found in the Sound Bite section.]
- Ansen, David. "History A La Hollywood: Civil Rights And Wrongs." Newsweek 14 January 1991. http://www.newsweek.com/id/121188
- Ansen describes Alan Parker's direction as playing "fast and loose with the facts and . . . therefore [should be ] trounced by historians, civil-rights leaders, and journalists for his transgressions." Ansen hopes the backlash will keep Hollywood more honest in the future, an unlikely event. He refers to one of Parker's other historically-based films in which he has not abandoned social conscience, Come See the Paradise, which is about Japanese internment camps during World War II. Although Parker made great effort with Mississippi Burning, Ansen says he "reduced a powerful story of institutionalized racism into an unforgivably dull film." Ansen also questions why it was necessary to tell the story from the vantage point of a white hero.
- Arthur, Paul. ""Hollywood: The Dustbin of History." USA Today [Magazine] 117.2528 (May 1989):35.
- "When it comes to rewriting the past and serving it up in a stomach-churning gruel, nothing approaches the Cuisinart of Hollywood spectacle. 'Mississippi Burning' is a blue-plate special. The resulting debate has raged for months."
- "Civil Rights, Burned." New York Times 30 December 1988: A10.
- Editorial in arguably the country's leading newspaper blasts the historical inaccuracies in the film. "Almost perversely," the film recreates events "in a way that mocks civil rights." FBI lawlessness "traduces the principles for which so many sacrificed so much to advance civil rights." Thee three young men are "worse than forgotten," they are "defamed."
- Ebert, Roger. Review of Mississippi Burning, dir. Alan Parker. Chicago-Sun Times 9 December 1988. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19881209/REVIEWS/812090301/1023
- Ebert expresses his satisfaction with Mississippi Burning, including Alan Parker's direction, Chris Gerolmo's writing, and acting by main characters Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, and Frances McDormand. The town is genuinely 1960s Southern, one that can be inviting to some and not so much to those of color. The film delves "inside the passion of race relations in America." The movie clearly does not base itself on facts but is more focused on the disagreeable relationship between the two agents, Anderson and Ward played by Hackman and Daofe, as well as the instant spark between Anderson and Mrs. Pell, played by McDormand, once he realizes she is the "key" to solving the murder case. Ebert says that Alan Parker uses more realism rather than melodrama to get his point across. The film is able to "capture the look, feel, and even smell of racism," which is what makes it his pick for one of the best American films of 1988.
- Howe, Desson. Review of Mississippi Burning, dir. Alan Parker. Washington Post 9 December 1988.
- Howe describes Mississippi Burning as a film that "speeds down the complicated path of civil rights in search of a good thriller." It's a modern-day western or "buddy flick." Hackman and Dafoe ride into town on their "liberal high horses" to solve the murder case and take on the sheriff's department and community. Director Alan Parker gives the viewer lynching, burning, and KKK chase scenes while cinematographer Peter Biziou helps the viewer see the "beauty among the beasts." The filmmakers want to avenge the dead and bring the bigots to justice in a "High Noon" finale.
- Kasindorf, Martin. Review of Mississippi Burning, dir. Alan Parker. Newsday 12 February 1989.
- Kasindorf makes it known that the film has generated unexpected publicity and a box office boost, going into detail about the Oscar buzz. The film is "an obviously well-intentioned attempt to evoke the half-forgotten racial violence of the ‘Freedom Summer' of 1964 in segregated Mississippi." The film has received numerous attacks by the likes of Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond, and other well-known civil rights movement veterans and African-Americans. NAACP executive director Benjamin L. Hooks is quoted saying the film "reeks of dishonesty, deception, and fraud."
- Kauffmann, Stanley. Review of Mississippi Burning, dir. Alan Parker. New Republic 9 January 1989.
- Kauffmann believes that the docudrama genre is a dubious one but even more so is a film such as Mississippi Burning that pretends to fit within the genre. The film does not seem to be at all bound by the facts, and the disclaimer at the end of the film makes it known that the film was suggested by the facts not based on them. In light of this, the director, writer, and producers felt they had leeway to "lard the story with movie stuff to make it play." The only progression with race relations Kauffman sees is that the film was shot on location where the actual events happened.
- Kempley, Rita. Review of Mississippi Burning, dir. Alan Parker. Washington Post 9 December 1988. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/mississippiburningrkempley_a0c9de.htm
- "Oddly, screenwriter Chris Gerolmo and Parker have remained aloof from the victims of this enormous social evil. They give us abuse, not suffering. The black characters are the movie's sacrificial lambs -- burned out, raped, lynched. And they're as sketchily drawn as the inbred-looking white supremacists. Parker, whose vision seems limited to black and white, comes close to admitting these problems in his notes on the making of ‘Mississippi Burning."' The movie probably wouldn't have been made at all, he writes, if it had not had white heroes." Writer "Gerolmo attempts a quick-fix enlightenment, blaming poverty and superstition -- but the movie is more effective as a semihistorical document, lest we forget the apartheid in America's past. But like the South African saga ‘Cry Freedom,' it views the black struggle from an all-white perspective. And there's something of the demon itself in that. It's the right story, but with the wrong heroes. There's this nagging feeling that it begins where it ought to have ended -- with the deaths of the three young activists."
- King, Coretta Scott. "Hollywood's Latest Perversion: The Civil-Rights Era as a White Experience." Los Angeles Times 13 December 1988): 7.
- King, wife of Martin Luther King, though apparently not having seen the film, lends her name-power to criticism of the film for its neglect of blacks. Mississippi Burning is just "another Hollywood whitewash of the black freedom struggle because it centers on the trials and tribulations of white people on the periphery of the movement."
- King, Wayne. "Fact vs. Fiction in Mississippi." New York Times 4 December 1988: H15. http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?_r=2&res=940DE2DA1F30F937A35751C1A96E948260&scp=3&sq=mississippi%20burning&st=cse
- King gives the facts of the case: "It was 44 days before the investigators penetrated the racist veil of silence that enveloped the case and found the bodies." The details and names of victims are changed, but the killing in the film itself is "eerily" close to the reality that comes from the FBI records. Some scenes may also be fabricated, but the reality is from June 1964 to January 1965, the KKK burned 31 black churches across Mississippi. That just goes to show the extreme extent of the KKK's terrorism against the blacks in Mississippi, so director Alan Parker may not have been far off in his portrayal. "In this case, fiction enables Mr. Parker to have his factual cake, so to speak, while spooning it out richly slathered with fictional icing." King is able to appreciate the movie in spite of its straying from the truth , because of the reasons behind Parker and writer Chris Gerolmo's decisions. The real investigation he says was "neither efficient, nor particularly dramatic." Using Anderson and Mrs. Pell's relationship as the key to the case substituted in reality for a $30,000 FBI payoff to an informant. Gerolmo knew the informant was not revealed, so he had to use Mrs. Pell instead. The scene involving a black man as a "specialist" hired by the FBI to get answers from the Mayor was also used in place of the supposed facts. It was alleged that a mafia hitman working for the FBI was actually hired to scare answers out of Klansmen back in 1964. "Although Neshoba County, Mississippi, was the actual setting for the grisly events of Mississippi Burning and the locus of one of the turning points of the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s, it is even today not a place where politicians like to remind voters of just how bad things were." In a 1980 campaign stop in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Ronald Regan completely disregarded talk of the murders that happened only twenty four years earlier.
- Letofsky, Irv. Review of Mississippi Burning, dir. Alan Parker. Los Angeles Times 4 February 1990.
- Letofsky highlights the fact that the film was highly criticized for its strictly white point of view. He describes the way in which the black characters "stood around looking stalwart and resolute, but immobile." Even Ben Chaney, brother of James Chaney, was quoted saying the film had, "a lot of excitement and a lot of blood and a lot of action, but it didn't reflect the attitude of the people who were there at the time, and that distorted history."
- Schickel, Richard. "The Fire in the South - - Mississippi Burning." Time 5 December 1988. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,956462,00.html
- Schickel considers the unlikely existence of two FBI agents such as Ward and Anderson in the real 1964 Mississippi. Instead, he believes that the agents represent "two conflicting responses to being cast by chance in a tragic historical drama." The film is not done in a documentary style translating the events in a literal sense; rather, it is more of "a cry of anguish turned into a hymn of desperate hope." Schickel also understands Gene Hackman as playing his character by hiding true feelings with humor, while Willem Dafoe stands up to him with "flat-voiced certainty." This film is distinguishable by director Alan Parker's acute re-imagining of time and place. The film also asks the viewer to believe that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover's dictatorship would have put on such an elaborate investigation, which is one demonstration of stretching the truth. Still he says, "narrow historical criticism somehow seems irrelevant to a movie that so powerfully reanimates the past for the best of reasons: to inform the spirit of today and possibly tomorrow."
- Sitkoff, Harvard. "Mississippi Burning." Journal of American History 76.3 (1989): 1019.
- Of Mississippi Burning, Sitkoff says in a premiere scholarly journal, "it is time to bury it for good." It is "a dishonest distortion of the historical record." Parker glorifies "violence and vigilantism," falsifies the part FBI agents played, and renders blacks invisible.
Emerson, Jim. "Mississippi Burning." http://cinepad.com/reviews/biglie.htm