Mississippi Burning

Movie review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Mississippi Burning Movie Poster Image
Violence, profanity, lots of tension in Jim Crow crime drama
  • R
  • 1988
  • 128 minutes

Parents say

age 15+
Based on 3 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 3 reviews

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Individuals who turn a blind eye to the violence and oppression in the Jim Crow South are as guilty as the "fanatics who pull the trigger," and maybe society as a whole is just as guilty as well. Hatred is learned by children, and historically in the American South it was repeated so often that it pervaded every aspect of life. Things are getting better, slowly. There are good people out there.

Positive Role Models & Representations

FBI agents Ward and Anderson want the truth known and justice done. Agent Ward is serious, plays by the rules, but isn't afraid to challenge segregation in everyday settings. Agent Anderson is easygoing and knows that rocking the boat will only harm the people they're trying to help. When following procedure fails to yield results, the two agree to try it Anderson's way; threats, coercion, and violence used on suspects are presented as morally justified. African-American characters are minor but important, and a variety of personal circumstances and ways of coping in the Jim Crow South are shown.


Main plot involves a murder investigation. Most violence takes place at night, with quick cuts so that very little is shown graphically. Murders show a gun aimed at a head and being fired. The victim isn't seen but some blood spatters, landing on another person. More gunshots are heard along with laughing about the murders just committed. Two scenes show lynching, one in some detail; both victims survive. Men throw bombs into churches; the bombs explode and the churches burn. Windows are smashed and burning crosses are shown. A man graphically describes how another had his scrotum cut off with a razor and nearly bled to death. Beatings, including kicking and punching, are shown, sometimes with small amounts of blood on the victims. After a barn is burned, graphic images of dead cows and horses are shown. A man beats his wife, throwing her around and punching; blood on her head is briefly shown. She's shown in the hospital with a heavily bruised and swollen face. Good guys and bad guys use threats and intimidation; one scene shows a man deliberately cutting another's face with a straight razor to intimidate. Photographs show a hanging body, a man with blood on his clothes, and a covered body lying on the ground.


Anderson and Mrs. Pell seem to be attracted to each other. Once they embrace and possibly kiss in silhouette.


The "N" word, "f--k" and variations, "ass," "s--t" and variations. Newsreel footage shows a Ku Klux Klan rally with racist and hateful speech. Lots of verbal hostility from white characters toward African Americans and other white characters. Lots of racist comments in news-footage-type interviews. Main characters Ward and Anderson argue a lot and use some verbal hostility, but are able to get past arguments and work well together.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Frequent cigarette smoking. Adults drink beer in moderation. One scene takes place in an illegal "social club" where alcohol is served even though it's a dry county. One scene shows a very drunk man being given a ride home by a driver who carries the man's flask with him into the front of the car.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Mississippi Burning tells a fictionalized version of real events in Mississippi in 1964, when three civil rights workers mysteriously disappeared. There's a lot of violence, mostly at night and not clearly seen so the scenes aren't graphic, but they're a powerful depiction of the horrors (lynchings, beatings, burning churches) endured by African Americans in the South, especially in areas controlled by members of the Ku Klux Klan. There's also a lot of profanity, including the "N" word, "f--k," and "s--t." Many characters make racist comments, and a couple of Klan-rallly scenes show speakers using racist talk to incite hatred. That being said, this is a story that's more about the deeply entrenched racism, hatred, and corruption that permeated local power structures like law enforcement and the mayor's office. Teens can be encouraged to think about how and why that came about and lasted as long as it did, how things have changed, and compared with current events, what changes still need to be made.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byOli April 20, 2020

Harrowing, dark and thought-provoking.

This film is an insight into the deep south and into the KKK. The film follows two FBI agents investigating the disappearance of three civil rights activists. O... Continue reading
Adult Written byHandle44 September 23, 2019


Very good movie not a big fan of movies but this one is great Gene Hackman and William Dafoe are fantastic with the exception of the wife beating
Teen, 13 years old Written bySxvage July 23, 2020
Quite disturbing but a great educational film
Teen, 14 years old Written byRyzeko December 7, 2018

Important to Watch but...

quite disturbing. This movie shows the past and what black people had to deal with, the KKK. It shows a very important part of American History that should not... Continue reading

What's the story?

Based on a true story, MISSISSIPPI BURNING tells the story of how the FBI investigated the disappearance of three Civil Rights workers in 1964. Agents Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Anderson (Gene Hackman) arrive in the small, rural town where the victims were last seen. Suspicion immediately falls on the corrupt sheriff, his deputies, and the mayor, all of whom are suspected members of the Ku Klux Klan. To get to the truth, Ward and Anderson will have to confront and bring down the county's most powerful figures. Is there a price that's too high to pay, and how can the community dig itself out of the deeply entrenched racism that permeates every aspect of life?

Is it any good?

With an outstanding cast and compelling script, director Alan Parker tells an explosive story that’s often painful but no less worthwhile viewing. A fictional retelling of real events, Mississippi Burning explores deeply entrenched racism and hatred, and how those two forces have been used to oppress African Americans and maintain the status quo for whites. It’s not a Civil Rights story, although that movement is the backdrop and the catalyst for the plot. Instead, the movie asks important questions teens and adults need to consider about how to have a just and equitable society, where the hatred comes from, how to combat it, and how to pick up the pieces after years of violent oppression.

It lacks any substantial African-American perspective (all the main characters are white), which would have added emotional depth and a balanced perspective, but it at least points out that it took the death of two white men to finally shine a light on a dark chapter in our country’s history.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence in Mississippi Burning. Is it historically accurate? Does that make it OK to watch?

  • What about the strong language, especially the "N" word? How does it make you feel, or what do you think, when you hear how it's used in this movie?

  • Do you agree with Agent Ward that people who watch and do nothing are just as guilty as those who pull the trigger? Or that we're all guilty? Why, or why not?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history

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