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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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.
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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?
- In theaters: December 2, 1988
- On DVD or streaming: May 8, 2001
- Cast: Willem Dafoe, Gene Hackman, Frances McDormand
- Director: Alan Parker
- Studio: Orion Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Character Strengths: Courage, Integrity, Perseverance
- Run time: 128 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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