This article was first published in Empire Magazine Issue #1 (June 1989).
In 1964 three young civil rights workers were slaughtered by the Klan in Neshoba County, Mississippi. For 25 years Hollywood has contrived to avoid any mention of the racial conflict of that time. Now it can't stop. Leading the pack is the Gnome Of North London, Alan Parker, with Mississippi Burning, a movie that uses the above murders as a departure point for a political thriller which is at the centre of a controversy about Hollywood's cavalier attitude to the truth. Patrick Goldstein goes on location below the Mason-Dixon line to see how history dissolves into cinema...
Everybody stares hard at the stage. A tall, angry man - face as red as his braces - is reaching the climax of his speech to the White Citizens' Council rally. Behind him is a huge banner, adorned with the slogan "NEVER NEVER NEVER" . Shaking his fist, he bellows, "I love Mississippi!" Waving flaming torches in the air, the crowd erupt into cheers and applause. "They hate Mississippi," he continues. "They hate us because we represent a shining example of successful segregation. These Northern students, with their atheist, communist bosses, came into our community this summer with the wish to destroy it. This week their cause has been crippled... they're powerless against us, if every last Anglo-Saxon Christian one of us stands together!"
The cheers are deafening. No one seems to mind that it's way past midnight, the mosquitoes are biting and the ground is so gooey that every time you move, your feet sink to your ankles. It is a sight to behold - 600 rowdy Mississippians standing in a big muddy field on a hot spring night, sweating and hollering, in no mood to leave.
Off to one side of the stage, a woman who's been watching the display turns to a visitor: "I just keep saying to myself what they said about Jaws-it's only a movie, it's only a movie!"
And thankfully it is. The spirited populace are recruited extras; the fiery speaker is Stephen Tobolowsky, who plays a Ku Klux Klan leader; the rally has been going all night because director Alan Parker is shooting a complicated series of close-ups. But for moviegoers too young to remember the grim 60s news footage of Southern church bombings, firehose assaults and bloody night-stick beatings, Mississippi Burning could well be a history lesson.
It's set in the summer of 1964, when hundreds of young, pre-dominantly white, civil rights activists invaded Mississippi, the deepest state in the Deep South. This was the climax of a simmering campaign which had begun with students in Carolina sitting in the "whites only" section of a lunch counter, gathered force with the Freedom Riders, people brave enough to openly defy the institutionalised segregation of the Southern transport system. Many had their heads broken for their pains as the mob, usually with the implicit support of the forces of law and order, made plain their determination that Northern college kids were not about to tinker with their social system.
Some activists paid with their lives. Medgar Evers, local head of the NAACP, was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi in June of 1963. Three months later four black children were killed when somebody burned down a church in Birmingham, Alabama.
By the middle of 1964 the Senate had passed its Civil Rights Bill and most Southern states realised they were going to have to bend with the times. Mississippi was the exception, thus declaring itself the focus of the righteous indignation of an entire generation of liberal college kids. Hundreds volunteered for a week's training in non-violent resistance in Ohio, intending to confront the de facto segregation of the state with the law of the land that John F. Kennedy governed. The enterprise was called The Mississippi Summer Project, as if it were a mildly improving way to use a vacation.
Few Southern blacks saw voting as relevant to their lives; but some were willing to confront local officials and complete the necessary paper- work in order to get on the electoral register. If the threat of shotgun-wielding whites standing around polling stations was not enough to dissuade them then the State of Mississippi was prepared to enact legislation to make registering even harder. After 1957 any applicant was faced with 21 questions which had to be answered in the presence of the county registrar. Question 17 required the would-be voter to interpret a constitutional amendment to the interrogator's satisfaction. This section became such a mockery that, according to one account, officials would replace it with their own questions such as "How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?".
To the students this was a simple conflict between right and wrong. To the people of rural Mississippi it was the Federal Government and the Eastern Establishment trying once more to trample the independent spirit of the South. By summer's end the Mississippi chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had ballooned to more than 5,000 members. The state Klan leader Sam Bowers - later sentenced to ten years in jail for his role in the terrorism - was a lifelong bachelor who entertained visitors by barking "Heil Hitler" to his dog. He was accused of masterminding 75 bombings of black churches, 300 assaults and nine murders.
Three of the murders occurred on 21 June, 1964 on Highway 19, three miles east of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Andrew Goodman, a young activist from a well-to-do liberal New York background, James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian and Michael Schwerner, a leading civil rights worker who was known, unaffectionately by local whites, as "Goatee" for his beatnik beard, were jailed by local police. This much was routine. But later that night they were released virtually into the arms of Bowers' Ku Klux Klansmen, who shot them, dumped their car in the Bogue Chitto swamp and buried the trio in an earthen dam on a farm called the Old Jolly Place.
For legal reasons, the movie doesn't mention the names of the civil rights workers. They've also changed the names of the Klansmen and the locations where actual events occurred. They've even disguised the brand of chewing tobacco used by local lawmen, switching from Red Man (the real thing) to Old Jake, a fictional brand designed by the prop department.
But nobody has bothered to disguise which state spawned this ugly mayhem. Mississippi Burning offers graphic reminders of an era when redneck locals saw Northern FBI agents as "commie-loving Hoover boys" and the Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi could get away with publicly describing the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colour People) as "Niggers And Alligators, Coons and Possums".
Back in the muddy field ten miles outside of state capital Jackson where Parker is shooting his rally, the watching locals play down the impact of the speaker's rhetoric. "That's ancient history around here," says Roy, a high school student who's been given a period-style crewcut by the hair and make-up department. "People still get up in arms about the Confederate flag, but we've had too many changes for people to go back now."
Parker still detects something that distinguishes Mississippi from the rest of the South: "We could have done this movie in any Southern state, but when you come across the border into Mississippi, you feel something different. Gene Hackman told me that when he went to the cleaners today, the guy behind the counter said, 'Oh, you're the actor that's in that nigger movie they're making down here'. That's why we're doing the film here. If you're going to make a movie about that attitude, you should be where you see it every day."
It's nearly two a.m. when Parker plunges into the crowd, looking for extras with striking faces. "You . . . and you ..." he says, pointing to a wrinkled old man in a straw hat, then to a woman with a tiny child in her arms.
"I want the children up front," Parker says, eyeing a little girl in pigtails. "They have such extraordinary faces - I want people to see where the seeds of bigotry begin."
"You'd hope that the wealthiest country in the world could at least eradicate poverty," observes Parker. "I've seen more poverty here, especially in black areas, than I've ever seen before."
John Horne was nine in the summer of 1964: "I remember our family used to drive by a big swimming pool on Bailey Avenue. On a really hot day, we'd see all these white people in there - swimming, laughing and having a good time. And I'd say to my father, 'Dad, can't we pull over and go swimming?' He'd say no and when I'd ask why not, he'd say, 'Because that pool's for white people'. "I couldn't even go downtown and try on shoes at Macrae's Department Store. I would tell my mother what my shoe size was and she'd go buy them for me. It was only when I was older that I found out why. If you were black and tried on a pair of shoes, you had to buy them. Black people couldn't wear shoes that white people might end up buying."
After a three-year stint running Mississippi's film commission, John Hohrn is now executive director of the state's Federal State Programmes, a key figure in luring business to the economically stunted area, which remains last in the nation in such categories as per capita income, employment rate and literacy rate. Both jobs involve image making, and nothing sends a message quite so quickly as a powerful movie.
"I felt that even if I didn't do anything else in this job, I was going to bring this film to Mississippi," says Hohrn. "I'm tired of having this mid-60s image of a state that's stuck in racial prejudice and ignorance. We don't want to be known as a place where civil rights workers were shot and where James Meredith had to risk his life to integrate the University of Mississippi.
"And I figured we'd just have to take the bitter with the sweet. If we could make a movie happen that tells the toughest story about our state, then it would show that we could handle anything."
By Hohrn's account, the film makers were equally nervous about coming to Mississippi. "When I first spoke to them, I heard a lot of hesitancy. They'd been doing research in other parts of the South, but I was told they were scared to come to Mississippi.
"They were even scouting locations in Forsythe County, Georgia (a renowned hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity). So I said, "Hey, if you can shoot this movie in Forsythe County, you can shoot it here!"
Fred Zollo was 11 that summer: "I was in Massachusetts, swimming in a friend's swimming hole. I'd read about the disappearance of the kids. But I really remember sitting in front of the TV when they found the bodies. The images are still completely distinct. The burned car. The bodies in the bags. All the faces of the people watching. It was scary, because I really identified with those two Ivy League college kids who'd been killed. I remember thinking to myself, 'that could have easily been me'."
A respected young theatre producer, Zollo has overseen such notable productions as Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio and the London staging of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Mississippi is a long way from Broadway but the boyish-looking 35 year old insists that shooting has gone smoothly. "Everyone's been supportive. We've only had very small problems."
Zollo doesn't elaborate but the crew are buzzing about a minor incident that occurred after they'd finished shooting a night scene at a local church. "The next day one of the officials called to say we'd forgot to erase the graffiti we'd written on the side of the church," one of the crewmen recalls. "We said, 'What graffiti? We didn't write anything on the church.' And they said, 'Well, then what's this big KKK sign doing painted on the church?'"
He is suitably aware that Hollywood is in no position to preach when it comes to racial opportunity. It's no secret that most film crews are virtually all-white and of the roughly 60 crew involved in making Mississippi Burning, there were at most four blacks, not counting actors and stuntmen.
"Obviously we wanted to have black crew members - and we wanted to have the best people," says Zollo diplomatically. "And I think we have both."
It's unlikely that Zollo and Parker will be renewing their partnership after this picture. The tensions between the two were obvious on set and away from visitors Zollo had a habit of referring to him as Captain Bligh. On-record he was more diplomatic.
"The auteur theory is definitely in force - Alan runs his set like a commander in chief," he says, forcing a smile. "He's a difficult man and we've had our differences. But it's nice to have someone on the set who knows exactly what he wants. Let's just say, to use the metaphor, that you have to pass the baton. And Alan hasn't dropped it yet." (continued below)
Greetings from Finsbury Park
You sit over there," grunts Alan Parker, directing this particular scene from a horizontal position on the settee. He's holed up in the exclusive St James' Club to meet a varied selection of the British press corps, the people he occasionally calls "turnipheads". He's agreed to press the flesh, however, so that yet another territory can be made aware of the existence of Mississippi Burning. After this, it's back to Los Angeles, his adopted home.
Alan Parker was 20 in 1964: "I was in London, just beginning to work as a copywriter at an ad agency. I'd always been very political, perhaps because I came from such a poor, working class background. But the events happening in America that summer really changed our view of the States. "Everyone who was young in England had always been obsessed with America. With its movies, its music, all of its culture. It was like an El Dorado. But the turmoil and ugliness of the civil rights movement really darkened our view of America considerably. It was really the first time that you realised that the America we'd seen through the eyes of Hollywood movies wasn't necessarily the America of reality.
"I am difficult!" he boasts as he eats dinner in a trailer parked on a remote country road where the FBI manhunt was being shot. "When I was being very difficult once I was described by one of my critics as an aesthetic fascist."
He twirls his knife in the air, apparently relishing the title for a moment. "But I'm not difficult for ego reasons or for desire of awards - but for the work. I'm not making movies for 14 intellectuals at the Cinematheque in Paris. I'm making films that have to find a wide audience. So I've got a responsibility to take the producer's $15 million and do this right."
A keen-witted man who can be charming one moment and arrogant the next, Parker isn't slow to analyse America's racial problems. "You'd hope that the wealthiest country in the world could at least eradicate poverty," he observes coolly. "Mississippi is a poor, depressing place. I've seen more poverty here, especially in black areas, than I've ever seen before."
He doesn't sound convinced about the depth of the change in racial attitudes: "They may have stopped calling blacks 'niggers' in public, but you hear that word so often down here that it's clear that it no longer embarrasses them. I've heard it everywhere I go.
"One point I'm trying to make in the script is that racism has a lot to do with class. The white working class here was totally duped. The upper class set up this black underclass so the poor whites would feel better - at least there was a whole class underneath them."
From the way he talks about it you'd think that Parker wrote the script himself. Actually, it's by Chris Gerolmo, a young screenwriter who teamed with Zollo on a Richard Gere farm movie Miles From Home, released in the U.S. last year.
"I tried to work with the writer to fix the script, which didn't work very well," Parker says. "So the easiest thing was for me to completely re-write it. The racial events of the period were just too important for the script to read just as a detective story."
Gerolmo's original script, written in 1985, was devised as an epic, perhaps to star William Hurt and Clint Eastwood, focussing on the tension between the differing approaches of the two lawmen who set out to track down the civil rights workers' killers. When pitching it he invoked the comparison of class western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. After forming an alliance with Zollo, they sold the story to Orion and discussed directors like Milos Forman and John Schlesinger before settling on Parker who was attracted to the story and saw the possibilities of turning up the political volume.
Gerolmo, who was stuck in Los Angeles, unable to visit the set because of the writer's strike at the time of shooting, hotly disputes Parker's assessment of his script: "After Alan was hired it quickly became apparent that he was intent on redoing the script. We did try working together, but he really browbeat me into making all of his changes. He turned out to be a real creep. After lunch on our first day of working together he became very bombastic and ugly, calling me an amateur, a dilettante and saying my script was stupid and lazy. By the end of the first day, he was holding the script up in the air and saying 'This ain't worth making'.
"I think Alan's problem is that he pretends to be a Marxist but he's actually a Fascist. He doesn't like Americans at all, so he wanted the script to really whack it to us. He took out any lyricism I had in the story and painted all the white people to be ugly, oafish, stupid and drunk."
Gerolmo praises Zollo's involvement in the film, but says that Orion sided with Parker in their disputes. "Alan is a $1.6 million player in Hollywood and Orion needed an A director who could get the movie ready by Christmas. It's a matter of power."
"I want the children up front - I want people to see where the seeds of bigotry begin."
Parker scrambles along a dolly track in the swampy woods near Vicksburg, bobbing up and down with each step he takes in, the spongy ground. One of the actors calls it "like walking on mattresses". He's preparing a scene where FBI agents Hackman and Willem Dafoe stumble through the backwoods brambles and discover a young black youth who's been beaten and tortured by the Klan. Even after midnight, the air is steamy and still, with swarms of bugs collecting wherever the crew place a bank of spotlights. It was probably just as hot back in 1964 when FBI agents searched similar swamps for dead bodies.
As Parker maps out his master shot, Simeon Teagus, who plays the black youth, is already curled up in a bed of twigs and tall grass, movie blood on his face, torso and groin. A crew member is hunkered down nearby. "You got to watch out for water moccasins in these woods," he jokes, referring to a particularly nasty local snake. Teagus grins. "Don't worry - they don't like dark meat."
The jiving continues until Hackman and Dafoe arrive, sweat already seeping through their FBI suits. Parker calls for action. Dafoe is the first to reach the black youth. As the boy writhes in pain, Dafoe lifts his head and cradles it in his arms. When Hackman joins his partner, he stares at the gored youth, eyes dark with anger and helplessness.
Still clutching the youth, Dafoe says in a low, sorrowful voice, "What's wrong with these people?"
Parker whispers "Cut" and hurries to Dafoe's side. "You know what might be a good idea? When you first hold him up, his pants are around his knees. Why don't you try pulling them up, as if you're trying to preserve his dignity?"
The actors play the scene again - and again, Dafoe holding the boy in his arms and hitching up his trousers. Parker surveys the scene.
"That's very good. Let's do it again."
Hackman looks forlornly up at the sky. "Jeez, it's hot out here. It just seems to get hotter as the night goes on."
Willem Dafoe was nine in 1964. "There were very few blacks where I grew up," says the actor, who was raised in Appleton, Wisconsin. "I was brought up in a totally white, Lutheran-Germanic community. The only blacks in town were Africans with PhDs working at the local chemistry institute. So I felt far away from what was going on down South. Still, my parents instilled in me a humility that you shouldn't put yourself above other people - that it was a sin. Your tolerance wasn't really tested, because you grew up in such a homogenized place. But the values were there. If I'd ever used a word like 'nigger', I'd have been slapped in the mouth."
Dafoe is a gifted story teller with a self deprecating sense of humour. One night, after club-hopping with the crew, he makes fun of his own erratic dancing style, saying, "I just hope I didn't hurt any innocent bystanders." Unfortunately he's less at ease during interviews. His loose-limbed swagger disappears, replaced by the grave demeanor of a head teacher.
"As an actor, I'm always involved in a process of exploration about my character," he explains, lighting a cigarette in his trailer. "In this film, the dilemma is - where does this FBI guy's moral stance harden into a posture of blind arrogance? That's fascinating to me. You have this guy – me – who's so morally correct, but fatally compromised by the crusader mentality.
"It's so incredibly complicated down here. They have faced up to a lot already. But people here always preface things by saying, 'I'm no racist'. And then they turn around and say, These niggers are just frustrated'.
"At first I wanted to stop them on principle. But now I let them talk because I want to hear - and to learn – what they have to say.
"In a lot of ways I've come to think that change can only come from forcing people to do things against their will. But then you're forcing your point of view on people, so is that right? Do you have to become a bully to simply help people in need?
"See, I'm talking in a circle again. That's what this stuff does to you."
It's been 49 years since Daniel Salony opened his Paramount Barber Shop on Farish Street in downtown Jackson - and the place looks unchanged. It has hand-cranked barber chairs, a pair of battered spitoons and a row of dingy mirrors surely made out of a glass prized more for its durability than any reflective quality.
Judging from the hand-lettered sign on the wall Salony isn't getting rich. A shave goes for three dollars, a men's haircut is five dollars and a men's "shag" is six dollars, as is an item mysteriously labelled a "Hot Blow Out".
The prices are negotiable, as is the barber's age. When the film crew sought to use his shop in the movie, Salony said he'd just turned 77. But today he's 78, and growing older by the minute. "I'll be 79 in July," he says, tipping his pork pie hat. "I still feel good."
He grumbles that the company paid him $50 for the two chairs that Hackman broke while vigorously interrogating a suspect with an open razor and it cost him $75 to fix them. However, his mood brightened after a visit from a production assistant who promised to make up the difference.
"I think the movie's gonna help show how things have changed," he says, puffing on a fat cigar. "The attitude of white folks here is a whole lot better. They treat you as a human now."
He waves his cigar towards the door. "Years ago, a coloured boy would get whupped if anyone caught him talking to a white girl. They'd be ready go to out and hang him. Now you got a different story. A coloured boy can go out and even marry a white woman. It's the law!" He grins, displaying a crooked row of tobacco-stained teeth. "It's good to show how things been," he says, rolling his cigar in his mouth. "It's something you want to remember, I guess, just like it's something you want to forget."
"A cinematic lynching of the truth"
Mississippi Burning is "a mix of fact and fiction", according to Alan Parker/ Nit where does the former end and the latter begin? On the night of 21 June 1964 three young civil rights workers, Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman and James Chaney, were shot on a dark road in rural Mississippi by members of the Ku Klux Klan including Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price. After killing Chaney one of the murderers said "You didn't leave me nothing but a nigger, but at least I killed me a nigger". Parker's film starts with the same incident (without naming the victims) and quotes the same line.
Parker's view is that "it's an argumentative and confrontational film which is meant to create a debate. "It's done that and that's the best I can ask from a film." Whether he intended the controversy to be stirred so much by the ethical questions of "fictionalised" history is another matter. The movie opened in America last year against a background of complaints that it focussed on the least interesting aspect of the whole civil rights revolution (the conflict between two entirely fictional Feds) in order to satisfy the demands of a Hollywood system that blanches at the approach of politics.
This article was first published in Empire Magazine Issue #1 (June 1989).