To the editors:
Jonathan Rosenbaum must have a pretty skewed idea of what the average person knows and SHOULD know about racism in the American South in 1964. His scathing review of Mississippi Burning [December 16] misses the film's point--and its excellent depiction of that point.
Mississippi Burning is a film that its producers, for better or worse, have admitted is a FICTIONALIZED account of what happened in a small town when two liberal FBI agents come to investigate the murders of three activists involved in a Black voter registration campaign. Granted the film is problematic in that its fictionalization robs the viewers of a genuinely factual history lesson; and, the FBI agents (who represent a conservative, hardly anti-racist organization) are portrayed as the good guys. But the value of this film lies in its gruesomely accurate, truly moving account of what it was like to be a Black person in the racially segregated South, living under the Jim Crow laws, and utterly helpless in the face of local Klan-infested governments and police. This is a part of American history which is rarely presented in mainstream films.
Rosenbaum continually asserts that the film's Black characters are drained of all complexity. Given the fact that the stars are white, there is still a consistent group of Black characters whose voices are heard and with whom the viewers empathize. It must be understood that the reason the predominant emotions shown by Black characters in the movie are fear, sadness and distrust of whites is that that's the way it was.
Finally, the film's message is presented in what Rosenbaum terms its "splashiest" scene. But he was too busy looking at the "palatial" setting to hear what was being said. When the Black minister cries, in his eulogy for the murdered Black civil rights worker, "They want me to say we mourn for the families of the white boys; but I am sick and tired, and I want you to be sick and tired with me. I am sick of young Black men being killed!", every person in that theater is outraged too--and a few just may be inclined to want to fight the racism that is still rampant in our society.
Mississippi Burning is a film that: (1) teaches what it was like to be Black and have no rights in the country of which you are a citizen as recently as 1964; (2) boldly challenges racism, the Klan and the false notion that people's ideas can't change; and (3) grips the audience in a way that few movies do these days, by evoking a place and time that, while not completely factual, is pretty darn close.
Mississippi Burning has its flaws, but by calling it "worthless," Rosenbaum is discouraging people from going to see a movie against racism. Any mainstream film that so clearly argues against racism is a rare and pleasant surprise. But this one is well acted too.