Mississippi Burning and the White Gaze

Mississippi Burning is a tense historical thriller that tells the story of the FBI investigation into the murder of three civil rights activists during the Freedom Summer campaign by several KKK members. The film won an Oscar and has a fantastic cast, starring Gene Hackman as Agent Anderson and Willem Defoe as Agent Ward. Many would argue that this film is a classic and yet…

As a viewer looking back on this film, who has become far more aware of the subtleties of the treatment of race in film, I cannot help but feel troubled. Despite the film prizing freedom, truth and equality, the way that the film works serves, at times, to reiterate negative stereotypes and the pervasive trope of the ‘white saviour’.

The problem with the movie is not the story itself. The plot and action, even if not one hundred percent historically accurate, makes for a moving and compelling viewing. The issue with Mississippi Burning is the mechanics of how it operates and its perspective. With a white director, the film is crafted through the ‘white gaze’ – the act of seeing, or being seen, through the perspective of only white people, often navigating black people’s experiences.

Jordan Peele’s revolutionary film, Get Out, challenges the white narrative of cinema by exploring the dangers of the white gaze in modern America. His film forces the audience to question the restrictive and constraining image of black people that is created and sustained by white stereotypes. Not only inherently racist and sometimes openly aggressive, the white gaze can also be subtle and attempt to assimilate black people into white culture. Yet, despite the attempt of black artists and writers to challenge the white narrative, the lack of black directors in cinema means that it is rarely challenged in film.  

In Mississippi Burning, the film’s good intentions are undermined by its attempts to garner sympathy from a white audience by situating the black community as voiceless victims. Despite Martin Luther King Jr. having visited the town a month after the disappearances of the three activists and the film being set during the Freedom Summer movement, no prominent black figures are included in the film except for a young black child and a black FBI officer. Neither are given extended roles in the narrative, let alone well-rounded ones. The persistent motif of burnt churches and their black congregations singing, although hopeful, limits the film’s concept of what it is to be black and its exploration of black culture. It displays these black Mississippians as passive, and the focus on the white FBI officers contribute to the trope of the white saviour and strips black characters of their agency. Some may argue that these were the power relations at the time, but I would say that the film oversimplifies the true historical narrative.

In so doing, Mississippi Burning tries to un-‘other’ black people, and whilst it attempts to remind us all of what is common to all humans, it whitewashes the narrative entirely; eroding, erasing, and rewriting what it is to be black. It takes away the voice of the black community, as much as it tries to protect it.

Perhaps Mississippi Burning is just failing to stand the test of time, it’s treatment of racism and black culture is not strong enough by today’s standards. But perhaps by watching it and enjoying it with a critical eye that does not blindly accept the white gaze, then maybe we might be able to learn from it.

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August 2022
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