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Films >> Mississippi Burning (1988) >> Scene Analysis >>

“Separate and Unequal” -- A Tale of Two Scenes

By Patrick O'Brien

[1] Mississippi Burning, directed by Alan Parker and written by Chris Gerolmo, presents the moviegoer with a contradictory racial message, and perhaps no other scene embodies that more concisely than the opening forty-five seconds. This introductory scene -- a simple and virtually still image -- is surprisingly powerful and subtly much more intricate than it may initially appear to the audience and, quite possibly, even to the filmmakers. Parker was attempting, both in the movie and in this particular scene, to firmly and explicitly oppose racism. The iconic opening shot of the dueling water fountains is an immediate visual reminder of why the Civil Rights Movement was needed, thereby presenting us with the problem that both the movement and the film need to solve -- that is, “separate” was not and could not be equal. This shot qualifies as anti-racist and excellently distills the essence of racial oppression wrought by the white supremacists in 1964 Mississippi.

[2] Ironically, however, the larger scene in which this opening shot resides, like the larger film itself, ultimately reinforces the very basic principle it is intending to expunge -- that is, the hierarchy of race. At about the middle of the forty-five-second scene, a white “adult” male enters and drinks from the fountain marked “white.” Shortly thereafter, a black “boy” follows suit, appropriately drinking from the “colored” fountain. Kelly Madison uses these character choices by Parker in this opening scene as a point of departure to argue that the scene, and the film, ultimately “infantilizes” black people and reifies white supremacy, albeit in a newer and more subtle form (410-12).

[3] Madison argues that such liberal “anti-racist ‘white’ hero films” as Mississippi Burning, which deal with the efforts of the oppressed against white supremacy, have now co-opted the narrative, revised history, and cast white characters as the protagonist/hero. Madison points to movies like Mississippi Burning, arguing that the choice to cast the “white” characters as the leads, as Parker does with agents Ward and Anderson, removes agency from the oppressed. This inaugural scene is precisely where, in encapsulated form, we can first observe, if we look closely, the noble attempt by Parker to reject racism and its corresponding system of hierarchy and privilege, only to witness that message eventually deflated.

[4] The film opens by fading to a still image of a wall upon which are mounted two water fountains, the one on the left labeled “white” and the one on the right labeled “colored.” The scene literally contains no dialogue other than the gospel song “Lord, Please Take My Hand” playing woefully in the background. The imagery seems quite simple; the “white” fountain is posted higher on the wall and is refrigerated and fancier than its “colored” counterpart, which is not refrigerated and appears to “run” nonstop. The reality behind the “separate but equal” doctrine in Mississippi and the broader Jim Crow South is laid bare by Parker in the first seven seconds of imagery. It is, as Vincent Rocchio has argued, “a critical assessment of the manner in which the South consistently failed to meet the standards of legalized segregation” (97). It serves to remind the audience in a memorable and pointed fashion of the ugliness of racism.

[5] Perhaps the most vital element of the mis-en-scene is the vertical pipe, that is, the origin of the water for both fountains, which literally bisects the image. It’s not insignificant that both fountains are supplied from the same source and from above and outside the scene. As Rocchio sees it, by emphasizing that the water is derived from the same source and by creating an image that is dialogic and realistic to the moviegoer, the realization that what happens to it after the water is diverted is not just unequal but reveals separation as a means to maintain a racial hierarchy. In other words, the water fountains scene demonstrates not only that the function of segregation was to maintain the meaning of race as a signifier of inequality but that separate is inherently unequal (Rocchio 99).

[6] When viewed in this context, the scene begins as a critique of the idea of racialism (the belief that race is not only real and biological but can also tell us something about the inner characteristics of a member of a particular race). As such, the lyrics “Lord, please take my hand, lead me on” are presented through the lens of racial (or rather, human) egalitarianism. It is a request shared by both “races,” which are symbolized by the fountains. Thus far, the film is not presented through the lens of any particular racial gaze, the problem of racial relations is presented as a mutual problem, and the implication is that there needs to be a collaborative solution.

[7] The short but significant opening scene is brimming with shadows and low key lighting, successfully exploited by Parker to create a sense of tension between and within the symbolized characters but leaving open, even foreshadowing the possibility of redemption. Even though directors attempt to use lighting so naturally and unobtrusively that the audience does not notice it as a separate technology, they can utilize lighting to draw attention to a specific character or image, to create a mood, or to send a message, for example, about the inner workings of a character. In this scene, the two-tone and shadowy appearance of both fountains (which are clear metaphors for “white” and “black” people) and the wall represents the inner and external turmoil faced by both “races” and is intended to convey the message that racialism is a significant factor negatively affecting both “races.”

[8] To be sure, Parker wisely does not equate the problems faced by both “races” by casting larger and more noticeable shadows around the “colored” fountain. The back light from above left of the mis-en-scene, which, in practical terms, is used to separate characters from the background and create a three-dimensional effect, represents the possible (and later implied) redemption or resolution of the racial problem. The dark deep shadows and the lighting of only part of the screen create a sense of ambiguity and threat. Filmmakers call this “low key lighting,” which moves the key light from its usual position at center to one side of the figure or image -- in this case, to the left of the fountains. Half the “white” fountain is lit, thereby representing the distorted, threatening aspect of the character -- the white supremacists and their enablers. The “colored” fountain is notably well lit; the shadows are mostly located off the actual fountain, for the racial tension in Mississippi does not originate from inside its “black” population. In this particular scene, both fountains are lit from above, softening their threat and ambiguity, which hints at future redemptive possibilities. It is important to remember that Parker’s use of shadows and lighting reinforces the notion of a level racial terrain.

[9] The interpretation of the opening scene becomes murkier once characters begin to enter the shot. On one hand, Rocchio argues that the “similarity between the two actions [of the “white” and “black” characters], combined with the manner in which the shot’s composition draws attention to the water pipe that feeds both water units,” foregrounds the irony of the situation; nothing more than social convention and/or legal statutes require that this act be separated. In his view, the anti-racialism of the opening scene continues even after humans enter the shot. But Madison takes a much different view, asserting that Mississippi Burning and its companions view the Civil Rights Movement and the oppressed peoples through the obfuscating lens of the “paternalistic white” gaze.” According to Madison, this serves to infantilize the oppressed and help “contain” the success of the Civil Rights Movement and its critique of “whiteness” and “white” supremacy by “circulating paternalistic white supremacist discourses through which to remember key historical moments in the struggles against white supremacy” (410-12).

[10] It is vital to recognize that Madison is not referring to the “cross burning Klansman” variety of white supremacy. The efforts by oppressed peoples in the latter half of the twentieth century certainly won the ethical battle -- overt racism is now socially unacceptable -- but the changes in U.S. society and culture have not amounted to “anything near the full equality hoped for” and have created a new, softer and euphemized white backlash. The original white backlash of “overt coercion and brutal repression” has been replaced by thinly veiled defenses of “whiteness,” in this case, in the form of “anti-racist ‘white’ hero films.” To support her argument, Madison claims that this opening scene presenting a white man and black boy embodies the new paternalistic “white” narrative.

[11] This is precisely the point at which we first find the failure in Parker’s attempt at anti-racism. To see the scene through Madison’s eyes is to witness a new kind of white supremacy that has imperceptibly (to most) replaced the old kind. In choosing a boy to represent African Americans in this establishing shot, we see evidence of the reification of a “white man” to “black boy” equation that suggests that a racial hierarchy does still exist -- and that it remains mostly invisible to those at the top of the racial and social hierarchy. This scene should remind us of the common historical practice of calling all “black” males “boy,” regardless of their age or station in life. It is obvious who the patriarch in this scene is. When viewed this way, the lyrics to “Lord, Please Take My Hand,” which is still playing in the background, become paternalistic and condescending.

[12] While Rocchio and Madison may have differing interpretations or focal points of the opening scene, they both offer similar assessments of the film. As Rocchio sees it, by removing the civil rights activists from the story and privileging the Anderson-Ward conflict, the “view of history that Mississippi Burning presents is structured from the position of [white] privilege, and its gaze is directed at the same place, privilege (102). This distortion of history functions to legitimize this hierarchy, and the struggle for civil rights is told only from the perspective of “white” privilege -- that is, what “white” people think the problem is and the best way to solve it (107). As Madison sees it, films like this that portray “black characters . . . as extremely childlike, passive, and docile . . . at times even zombie-like in their empty, victim-­object simplicity and silence” serve to reinforce the very principle they are intending to critique. “Whiteness” is only scrutinized “to the extent that is needed to fashion a more flattering mirror for whiteness than the one originally created by the movements . . . all without changing the larger representational structure of white domination” (410-12).

[13] Ultimately, then, the opening scene mirrors the uneven anti-racism of the film. While Parker distorts (or omits) the true history of Freedom Summer and removes almost all “black agency,” effectively infantilizing the “blacks” of Neshoba County, there were invented segments of the film that were historically and socially redeemable. A notable example is the story Anderson tells Ward about his father’s racism, in which poverty plays a key role. Another would be the admirable depiction of the atmosphere of terror created by Klan activity (putting aside the “zombie-like” reactions of the victims). A third striking example would be the scene in which the “black” FBI agent threatens a “white” supremacist during interrogation. All of these either complicate the story of racial relations in a good way or adequately demonstrate anti-racist qualities. Unfortunately, they are not enough to save the film from the negative responses that it mostly deserves.