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Mississippi Burning is a 1988 American biographical crime thriller film directed by Alan Parker that is loosely based on the 1964 Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner murder investigation in Mississippi. The film stars Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as two FBI agents assigned to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers in fictional Jessup County, Mississippi. The investigation is met with hostility by the town's residents, local police, and the Ku Klux Klan.

Screenwriter Chris Gerolmo began work on the script in 1985 after researching the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. He and producer Frederick Zollo presented the script to Orion Pictures, and Parker was subsequently hired by the studio to direct the film. Both the writer and director had disputes over the script, which resulted in Orion allowing Parker to make uncredited rewrites. The film was shot in a number of locations in Mississippi and Alabama, with principal photography lasting from March 1988 to May of that year.

Upon release, Mississippi Burning was criticized by activists involved in the civil rights movement and the families of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner for its fictionalization of events. Critical reaction was mixed, though the performances of Hackman, Dafoe and Frances McDormand were generally praised. The film grossed $34.6 million in North American box-office revenue, against a production budget of $15 million. It received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and it won for Best Cinematography.

Following its release, Mississippi Burning became embroiled in controversy over its fictionalization of events. Gerolmo and Parker have admitted taking artistic license with the source material describing it as essentially a ''work of fiction''. The killing itself is very similar to how it was recorded in court documents, although names are either not revealed or changed. Much of the violence and intimidation of the black people in the film is drawn from events that occurred at the time, although not necessarily in relation to this investigation. The title itself comes from the FBI code name for the investigation and some of the dialog is drawn directly from their files. A lot of the fictional elements surround the actions of the two main FBI agents.[7]

Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., boycotted the film, stating, "How long will we have to wait before Hollywood finds the courage and the integrity to tell the stories of some of the many thousands of black men, women and children who put their lives on the line for equality?"[66] Myrlie Evers-Williams, the wife of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, said of the film, "It was unfortunate that it was so narrow in scope that it did not show one black role model that today's youth who look at the movie could remember."[67] Benjamin Hooks, the executive director of the artistic license with the source material describing it as essentially a ''work of fiction''. The killing itself is very similar to how it was recorded in court documents, although names are either not revealed or changed. Much of the violence and intimidation of the black people in the film is drawn from events that occurred at the time, although not necessarily in relation to this investigation. The title itself comes from the FBI code name for the investigation and some of the dialog is drawn directly from their files. A lot of the fictional elements surround the actions of the two main FBI agents.[7]

Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., boycotted the film, stating, "How long will we have to wait before Hollywood finds the courage and the integrity to tell the stories of some of the many thousands of black men, women and children who put their lives on the line for equality?"[66] Myrlie Evers-Williams, the wife of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, said of the film, "It was unfortunate that it was so narrow in scope that it did not show one black role model that today's youth who look at the movie could remember."[67] Benjamin Hooks, the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), stated that the film, in its fictionalization of historical events, "reeks with dishonesty, deception and fraud" and portrays African Americans as "cowed, submissive and blank-faced".[68]

Carolyn Goodman, mother of Andrew Goodman, and Ben Chaney, Jr., the younger brother of James Chaney, expressed that they were both "disturbed" by the film.[69] Goodman felt that it "used the deaths of the boys as a means of solving the murders and the FBI being heroes."[69] Chaney stated, "... the image that younger people got (from the film) about the times, about Mississippi itself and about the people who participated in the movement being passive, was pretty negative and it didn't reflect the truth."[69] Stephen Schwerner, brother of Michael Schwerner, felt that the film was "terribly dishonest and very racist" and "[distorted] the realities of 1964".[68]

On a Martin Luther King Jr. Day (January 16, 1989) episode of ABC's late-night news program Nightline, Julian Bond, a social activist and leader in the Civil Rights Movement, nicknamed the film "Rambo Meets the Klan"[70] and disapproved of its depiction of the FBI: "People are going to have a mistaken idea about that time ... It's just wrong. These guys were tapping our telephones, not looking into the murders of [Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner]."[70] When asked about the film at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, filmmaker Spike Lee criticized the lack of central African-American characters, believing the film was among several others that used a white savior narrative to exploit blacks in favor of depicting whites as heroes.[71]

In response to these criticisms, Parker defended the film, stating that it was "fiction in the same way that Platoon and Apocalypse Now are fictions of the Vietnam War. But the important thing is the heart of the truth, the spirit ... I defend the right to change it in order to reach an audience who knows nothing about the realities and certainly don't watch PBS documentaries."[7]

On February 21, 1989, former Neshoba County sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey filed a lawsuit against Orion Pictures, claiming defamation and invasion of privacy. The lawsuit, filed at a United States district court in Meridian, Mississippi, asked for $8 million in damages.[28] Rainey, who was the county sheriff at the time of the 1964 murders, alleged that the filmmakers of Mississippi Burning had portrayed him in an unfavorable light with the fictional character of Sheriff Ray Stuckey (Gailard Sartain). "Everybody all over the South knows the one they have playing the sheriff in that movie is referring to me," he stated. "What they said happened and what they did to me certainly wasn't right and something ought to be done about it."[28] Rainey's lawsuit was unsuccessful; he dropped the suit after Orion's team of lawyers threatened to prove that the film was based on fact, and that Rainey was indeed suspected in the 1964 murders.[72]

Accolades

Missis

Mississippi Burning received various awards and nominations in categories ranging from recognition of the film itself to its writing, direction, editing, sound and cinematography, to the performances of Gene Hackman and Frances McDormand. It was named one of the "Top 10 Films of 1988" by the National Board of Review. The organization also awarded the film top honors at the 60th National Board of Review Awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress.[73]

In January 1989, the film received four Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Motion Pi

In January 1989, the film received four Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama (Hackman),[74] though it failed to any win of the awards at the 46th Golden Globe Awards.[75] In February 1989, Mississippi Burning was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor; its closest rivals were Rain Man leading with eight nominations, and Dangerous Liaisons, which also received seven nominations.[76] On March 29, 1989, at the 61st Academy Awards, the film won only one of the seven awards for which it was nominated, Best Cinematography.[77] At the 43rd British Academy Film Awards, the film received five nominations, ultimately winning for Best Sound, Best Cinematography and Best Editing.[78] In 2006, the film was nominated by the American Film Institute for its 100 Years ... 100 Cheers list.[79]

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