Feelings Smolder Over `Burning' Issue. Blacks insist their role in rights struggle in the South was played down in movie. FILM IN THE NEWS
Boston — IN a Dedham, Mass., theater, a young black woman stood up as the film ``Mississippi Burning'' ended, shouting ``Hate white people!'' while the man with her threw a big, 24-ounce soft drink at the screen, where it splattered and ran to the floor in tiny rivulets during the final credits. ``Mississippi Burning'' was released more than a month ago, but reaction to the controversial film about the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., is still registering, particularly among blacks.
Blacks active in the Southern civil rights movement feel the same bitterness and anger over historical inaccuracies and distortions that many Christians felt last summer when ``The Last Temptation of Christ'' was released. ``Mississippi Burning'' portrays a far too rosy view of the FBI, they say. And it ignores the local efforts of blacks who for years carried the burden of dangerous grass-roots civil rights work in the South.
``I felt tricked,'' says Judy Richardson, a black activist in Mississippi from 1963 to 1965, and a consultant on ``Eyes on the Prize,'' a 1987 TV documentary series about civil rights. ```Mississippi Burning' was very powerful. Gene Hackman acts his pants off. But it takes away the sense felt by blacks all over the South that `we won.'''
Ms. Richardson saw the film in Washington, D.C., with several former members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had worked in the South. They were so incensed at the film's image of powerless blacks waiting to be saved by two white FBI heroes that during the showing they ``started talking back to the movie,'' she says.
THE film contains a degree of truth about America, says Robert Moses, head of the SNCC in 1964, who went to Mississippi in 1959 to educate voters in the backwoods: ``We'd been working in Mississippi for years before 1964, and America never saw us. Now again they don't see us. Blacks in the movie are a plot device - a backdrop for the white heroes.''
What about the sacrifice of life and the beatings taken by such blacks as Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer, and countless SNCC workers? he asked earlier this month at a panel on the film at Northeastern University here.
As a matter of historical fact, Mr. Moses said, history shows that blacks were not as politically powerless in '64 (when the film is set) as in '61. He cites the case of Herbert Lee, a black trying to vote in '61 who was shot in broad daylight by a Mississippi legislator. There was no trial. ``That wouldn't have happened by '64,'' he says. ``A lot had changed'' - because of the work of local blacks and sympathetic whites.
Individual blacks, including members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also chafe at the ``savior'' role of the FBI in the film. They charge that a number of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's agents went along with the bigoted agenda of local police and, in some cases, the Ku Klux Klan. Taylor Branch's new book, ``Parting the Waters,'' charges FBI inaction or complicity during the period. Berkeley sociologist Todd Gitlin relates cases where FBI agents stood taking notes while black students were being brutalized. ``To make a film where the FBI is the hero and blacks are an anonymous chorus is obscene,'' he says.
NAACP president Benjamin Hooks says the filmmakers have rewritten history so that ``those who do not know the real story will never understand the tremendous human price paid for the simple right to vote.''
Richardson, the former activist, isn't pacified. ``People tell me, `Don't take it so seriously. It's only fiction.' It isn't fiction. It was a real time. Unfortunately, people - our young people, too - see this movie as truth. It's not.''