Why I Teach Film as Literature

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 images-1.jpgI 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.



Filed under about writing, admiration, film as literature, Learning, Literature, out in the real world, popular culture, Questions, self-analysis, success!, Teaching, the good ones, The Job, writing

16 responses to “Why I Teach Film as Literature

  1. Okay. I won’t answer the essay questions, lol, but I will jump in and say that I love this film. What is literature? A story, told in a way that captivates us with language. So, films done in this manner do fit.

    I love a good, novelized, telling of an intense episode in history. In fact, one of the best books I ever read was “In Cold Blood,” by Capote. I’ve never watched any of the movies because I think they would ruin the beauty of his writing.

    I liked “The Killer Angels,” as well, for the same reasons.

  2. Now THAT is a tight essay. 🙂

    Are you using the term “colored people” in the essay question because it’s a phrase used in the movie?

  3. Kizz, THIS is why I value your friendship so highly: I struggled with the phrase, and it would be you, of all people, to sense that in me.

    No, that isn’t a term used in the movie – the term that’s used most often is a term I won’t use, but blacks were often referred to as “negroes” by the FBI agents. I can’t recall if Hackman’s character ever referred to the community, though I do remember him saying something about “sending a bunch of white guys with their little notebooks” to get information from blacks wasn’t going to get the FBI anywhere.

    Political correctness is a tough one to navigate, and I, in my very white part of the world, do not have access to what the appropriate terms are today. Personally, if I’m referring to someone in terms of skin color (which I make a point to try to never do, any more than I would refer to someone with their sexual orientation), I use “black.”

    Do I need to modify that question’s language?

  4. That phrase would raise a stink if it were used at my college. I think I would call it people of color or even black Americans, African Americans.

    If course I am pretty white, too, so I really cannot say what would be offensive. In the time frame of the movie it would have been black or Negro; it was prior to the term african-american being used.

    Thank God computing is gender/race/religion (almost) neutral.

  5. my 6 year old says “brown people” and so far nobody’s come after her about it. How about “melanin-enriched” people?

  6. Mary

    Use of the term “colored people” is very offensive and about 40 years out of date.

    Try African American.

  7. I had something intelligent to say here but my 5th period class caused me to have a yelling fit so I forgot my comment.

    Damned 8th graders


  8. Super film! That movie stayed with me from the first moment I viewed it with my dad when I was 13.

    By the way, the History Channel had a film all about Edinburgh (?), the setting for Jekyll and Hyde with the theory that the character is actually a metaphor for the city itself. I only caught about ten minutes of it, but it was fascinating. I’ll be looking for it again. You may want to check it out.

  9. We had this conversation but I’ll just put it here since I’m sure it wasn’t saved in IM. In my experience African American is the way to go. It’s not perfect because some people who get lumped into that category have ancestry from the islands or from Central America rather than from Africa but it’s the term of the moment. You can, I think, get away with People of Color, especially if you’re talking about a huge group of people of a bunch of different ethnicities. I like Black or Brown but I’m not comfortable using it because it’s extremely casual. Colored People is generally used as dialogue in movies from the 60s when it was the PC term used by overprivileged white folk who were hiring people of color.

    It’s a tough thing to navigate but so important to get right.

  10. I’ve edited this entry so that ‘colored people’ is in quotes – it IS a term used in the film – I went back and checked – and I feel it would be cheating, somehow, to change the blog entry at this point.

    I have a black student in my class, and I’m going to bring up the issue of names and labels and political correctness on Monday as part of our investigation of race as a literary concept. I’ll report back the highlights of our conversations – I’m betting it’s going to be very interesting.

  11. COBB

    Just wondering how you get to show an R -rated movie? My VP @ the high school I teach..wrote me up for showing an R rated flick? The woes of being a teacher.

    • Cobb, I teach in a tiny (70 student) public charter high school with a VERY liberal-minded headmistress and board of trustees. They trust me to do my job and to do it well, and they give me the freedom to do just that. I taught THIS movie in a community college classroom several years ago, but I am 100% certain that I could show this film to my juniors and seniors at my high school if I wanted to; I need only to send home a permission form for those under 18. In fact, I showed Brokeback Mountain to my 11/12 class last year, and it was wonderful. I know that my situation is so unusual as to be extraordinary, though, and I’m grateful for it every single day.

  12. David

    What DOES “Rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide” mean???? never got it? I may be stupid but at least i dare to admit my ignorance

    • David, the way I understand the quote (which, by the way, I believe comes from this: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eyesontheprize/about/pt_101.html) is that rattlesnakes are, by their nature, aggressors. I think the quote is meant to convey a sense that those in power aren’t going to do anything to harm themselves while at the same time pouring energy into harming others (and thereby keeping their power intact). I think, too, that the quote, at least as expressed by Anderson, is a way of expressing that if the aggressors are going to be taken down, someone outside of their power base has to do it – they won’t burn themselves out but, rather, have to be actively opposed.

      • Ryan

        I came here looking for an interpretation of that line too but ended up completed distracted wondering how it was possible I was the only person to notice the English teacher writing “Who’s ‘side’ is he on?” 🙂

  13. WHOOPS! RYAN! This post has been up for FOUR YEARS! HOW did we all MISS that?! Clearly, you WERE the only person to notice it, and THANK you for pointing it out; I went right up and fixed it. GAH!

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