Mississippi Steaming | Letters | Chicago Reader

Mississippi Steaming 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

To the editors:

I object strongly to Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of Mississippi Burning (December 16, 1988). Criticizing the film for its undoubted shortcomings is one thing; declaring it "worthless" is quite another.

Some of Rosenbaum's criticisms are fair enough. The film ascribes far too noble aims to the FBI agent characters. Agreed. It ignores the well-established Bureau record of hostility to the civil rights movement. Agreed. The Black characters generally form a background to action involving the white characters. Agreed.

The film made no claim to be a docudrama on the Goodman-Schwerner-Chaney murders. It should not be judged as one. It is, however, a powerful film. If one judged Mississippi Burning only by Rosenbaum's review, one wouldn't know that it depicts civil rights marches or the beginnings of armed Black self-defense against the Klan.

Most of the funeral scene that Rosenbaum maligns consists of a march through town, to the voice-over of a speech cribbed from activist Dave Dennis' impassioned eulogy at James Chaney's funeral: "I am sick and tired of going to the funerals of Black men who have been murdered by white men . . . I'm not going to stand here and ask anyone not to be angry . . ."

(The speech marked an important signpost in the transition of the Black movement's demands from "civil rights" to "Black power.")

One could quibble about particular scenes forever. The more important fact is that Mississippi Burning made it to the screen in the first place.

During the last decade, the civil rights and Black Power movements' gains--from affirmative action to Black studies programs--have been eroded. Any number of indicators suggest that racial attacks are on the increase today. In this climate, is it any surprise that films like Soul Man, which mocks the concept of affirmative action, or Colors, which portrays every Black and Latino character as a criminal or "slut," have appeared? If my memory serves me correctly, neither of these films earned the Reader's "worthless" rating.

How many films having anything to do with the civil rights movement have appeared? I would think that an alumnus of the Highlander School like Rosenbaum would have welcomed Mississippi Burning--with all of its faults--as an opportunity to spur audiences' interest in examining the history of Freedom Summer and of the civil rights movement. Instead, he condemns it for "striking a glib and simple and easily digestible attitude against injustice."

Worse, he complains that the film's "simple melodramatic approach" drains "complexity" out of most of the characters, including the racists. Perhaps Rosenbaum would have considered the film stronger if it had portrayed some of the Klansmen as likable "family men" whose motives are simply misunderstood.

I saw Mississippi Burning about three weeks after Nazi skinheads in Portland, Ore. used a baseball bat to beat a Black man to death. I, for one, am not interested in understanding the "complex" motivations behind such attacks; I am interested in fighting against them. Thus, I was gratified to see a film which took an antiracist stand and which, as a result, depicted the Klansmen as the violent thugs they are. Given the choice, I'll take "glib and simple" films against injustice over films which take no stand for the sake of "ambiguity" and "complexity."

Someday, the film industry may produce a film which tells the story of the civil rights/Black Power movement from a Black militant's point of view. Until such time (if it ever comes), I'll encourage people I know to see films like Mississippi Burning. Whatever its faults, Mississippi Burning delivers a strong anti-racist punch--which is more than can be said for overwrought 2,500-word film reviews.

Lance Selfa


Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Agenda Teaser

Galleries & Museums
Monet and Chicago Art Institute of Chicago
February 11
June 12

Popular Stories

  • Surfing Sandy

    Lake Michigan's turbulent waters offer die-hard surfers a prime opportunity to shred some waves
  • Queer to the Left came to raise hell

    The group rejected the mainstream gay rights movement and kept alive the spirit of radical LGBTQ+ activism.
  • Skinheads

    There's a credo among skins: they take care of their own. So when Scott Gravatt came up from Atlanta with his swastika earring and his white power tattoos, a few of the local guys took care of him.
  • Listen to The Ben Joravsky Show

    Livestream and podcast
  • The 15th floor

    On losing a loved one at the Thompson Center