I wanted to be all dramatic and just put this image as my entire blog post under this title – if you’ve seen this movie, then you know; what else can I say? – but it turns out that I DO have more to say than can be expressed in this picture:
If you’ve not seen Mississippi Burning, or if you’ve not seen it in a while, go and watch it. No, really; now. Go on… I’ll wait…
I teach this movie as literature because I think that I’d be hard-pressed to find a more nuanced and complex character than Agent Rupert Anderson, played pitch-perfect by the incomparable Gene Hackman. The film, though often difficult to watch, is nevertheless made spellbinding by this man’s performance.
Anderson is, above all, a pragmatist. He’s grown up and worked all his life in the south; he knows how the system works and understands how to play within it. More importantly, though, he knows how to subvert it. He seems far more at ease with the racist good old boys in the bar than he does with the liberal-minded FBI agents with whom he works, and we’re never quite sure who’s side Anderson is really on until the almost the end of the film, when things start getting really hot. It’s this uncertainty we have in his character – in what he truly believes – that makes this film so compelling.
Anderson insinuates himself into situations where he can observe – and we can tell that this man never misses a thing – all the while, just under the surface, there seems to be the sense that his ability to blend in with the bigots and the racists is something he feels is a like nasty film that he can never quite wash off. The scene where he takes his time walking through a demonstration on Main Street is just delicious, packed as it is with incredible ambiguity about what message he’s trying to send to everyone who’s watching. While he never spouts any of the ugliness that seems to pour from people’s mouths, he never recoils in disgust from it, either. I’m left with a giddy feeling of geeky English-teacher excitement after having watched – regardless of how many times I’ve seen the film.
Does the movie have serious flaws? Of course it does. Based on a true story, the film nevertheless monkeys significantly with the facts of the case. I’m not teaching a history course, however, so I don’t have to be overly concerned with the facts (though I DO make a point of making sure my students know that the film is a fictionalized retelling of certain true events, and encourage them to do a little research on their own). What I want is for my students to see this character in all his craftiness and complexity, to exult in a truly stellar performance, and then to figure out a way to make language sufficient to the task of talking about it.
I’ve given my students these essay questions about the film, which I showed them yesterday:
1. About midway through the film, Agent Anderson says “Down here, they say rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide.” What does this quote mean, and why is it important?
2. Discuss Agent Anderson’s tactics in information gathering. Whose “side” is he on? How does he feel about the work that he does? Support your answer.
3. Consider the scene toward the beginning of the film, where Anderson makes his way through a demonstration march, and toward the end when Agent Ward marches with the funeral procession. How do these men show their support for the cause for which they both fight? Does one’s behavior seem more genuine or important than the other’s? Why or why not?
4. Investigate the role that ‘colored people’ had in this film. Do you think that the FBI could have been more effective in its dealings with the black community? How do you think the preacher’s son came to be so thoughtful and mature?
5. Toward the end of the film, Mrs. Pell says “hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught…. you get told it enough times, you believe it.” How does this sentiment support the underlying themes of the film? How do you suppose some people can’t – or won’t – learn new things?
I’m pretty sure that, like I did for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I’ll choose a question to answer for myself, if for no other reason than I’m still high from the experience of watching the film and am still having complex conversations with myself about what I saw.