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Mississippi Burning – Opening Sequence

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“Hatred isn’t something you’re born with, it gets taught. ” In the visual text Mississippi Burning these powerful words are reflected in the opening sequence. The opening sequence is made up of three key scenes, the drinking fountain scene, the burning church scene and the chase scene. These three scenes are effective because it establishes the central theme of the film. The director, Alan Parker, uses visual and verbal techniques such as symbolism, lighting and music to portray the idea of man’s inhumanity to man. Mississippi Burning is set in Mississippi in 1964 when there was a lot of racial tension.

This small town was controlled by the Ku Klux Klan who were a group of racist extremists willing to kill for what they believed. Black people lived in fear of the KKK. The protagonists, Alan Ward and Rupert Anderson, are introduced to us when three civil rights workers go missing and the FBI are sent down to find the bodies and ultimately the murderers. They find themselves battling the KKK and half of Mississippi who think the whole thing is “Just a big hoax”. The drinking fountain scene is effective because it introduces us to the main theme in this movie – man’s inhumanity to man.

This scene is filled with symbols and techniques that show us the division between black and white. The first thing we notice as a viewer are the two drinking fountains, one labeled white and one coloured presented to us in a mid-shot. The white one a newer more fancy hand operated model and the black one a less fancy fountain with constant stream of water. The white one being hand operated suggests that the white man has the power to control events and that the coloured drinking fountain being continuously on suggests black people are powerless.

If you are coloured you can only have what is handed to you but the white people live with a choice. White people are living the high life being able to turn their water of and on. With further analysis we notice that the white sign is higher than the black sign. This reflects the society at the time because in the rest of the film we defiantly see the white man ruling over the black man. The pipe running down the wall divides the two sides in half. Parker has deliberately put this here to show us in a simplistic way that the society at the time was divided. The lighting is also effective in this shot.

The only light in the frame is coming in from the side of the whites’ drinking fountain, which casts shadows on the coloured drinking fountain. This symbolizes the discrimination towards coloured people from the white people. Finally the gospel music in this scene engages the viewer’s emotion and makes the scene more meaningful. This scene is effective because it is packed of techniques that foreshadow what is to come in the film and makes us think about the main idea in this movie; man’s inhumanity to man. The burning church scene is the next segment in this opening sequence.

It is effective because it continues to show us the main idea in the film, man’s inhumanity to man. This scene is contrasted with the drinking fountain scene directly before. The running water and gospel music create a calm atmosphere in the drinking fountain scene then Parker shocks us with this intense flame that is destroying a church. These two scenes are effective together because the drinking fountain scene represents a calmer Mississippi before this racial tension and then the burning church scene represents the hatred and racism that has arisen in this quiet American town.

A church is supposed to provide a place of love and hope and then is destroyed by the hatred of the KKK. This represents the loss of peace and hope in the black community. This scene is effective because it relates to the main idea, what is wrong with Mississippi, man’s inhumanity to man. The chase scene is the final part of the opening sequence. It is effective because it introduces us to the KKK and also the main theme in this film. For the first time we see the KKK in action and their twisted views of different cultures. The scene starts with an extreme long shot of a single car on a deserted road and the only sound being crickets.

This gives us a sense that the car is vulnerable as it is on its own. We are then introduced to a convoy of 3 cars and dramatic music kicks in. This music disturbs the peace like something bad is about to happen. As the convoy approaches the car the driver dismisses the group and says, “what are these jokers playing at”. He is unaware of what is going on. The black man in the back however knows exactly what’s going on and says, “Oh they ain’t playin’, you better believe it”. The black man has experienced this or heard about it before. This shows that the KKK has terrorized the black community so that they all know and fear the clan.

When the KKK members step out of the car their torches shine straight into the faces of the civil right activists. This intimidates the workers and also hides the faces of the KKK. Because we don’t know whom the people getting out of the cars are, it gives the viewer a feeling of unease because their faces are concealed. Why would they want their faces to be concealed? When intimidating language like “Jew boy” and “Nigger lover” is used towards the activists this feeling of unease continues to grow. When the activists are shot the screen goes black. There is only one possible outcome a gunshot would cause so it doesn’t need to show us.

We are shocked by this senseless violence right out from the get go of the film. This scene is effective because it introduces us to the extreme views and extreme hatred the KKK has for black people or anyone who associates with black people. These three scenes are effective when put together because they give us an insight to the main theme in the film, man’s inhumanity to man. Although set in 1964 this film is still relevant. There are racist extremists and people with racist views today who could learn a lesson from this film; that racism divides a community and causes unneeded fighting and strife.

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