The mysterious circumstances surrounding the case of the disappearance and eventual murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 is the backdrop for this powerful film, produced in 1988.
If you just want to work with the film trailer, you can find resources here.
James Chaney, age 21 (black), Andrew Goodman, age 20 (white) and Michael Schwerner, age 24 (white) headed south to Mississippi, as volunteers for a program called Freedom Summer. The program focused on voter registration for blacks in the “closed” state of Mississippi. Immediately after their arrival they were arrested by the local police and later found shot to death.
As this was a time of great tension and unrest, due to the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement, there was massive media coverage and the FBI was called in to investigate. For the next six weeks the story unfolds revealing racism, hatred and corruption on all levels. The director, Alan Parker released the film as a dramatization of these events.
A Northerner and a Southerner
The two FBI agents (Gene Hackman and Willem DaFoe) couldn’t be more different from one another and their approaches to solving the murders set them apart. Agent Alan Ward (DaFoe) is portrayed as a younger, “by the book” agent from the north, who is naive of race relations in the south, while Agent Rupert Anderson (Hackman), having been a former Mississippi sheriff, has first-hand experience, including the unspoken rules of the south. They often disagree on their methods, yet manage to learn from one another and solve the case together.
Tasks and Activities
- What were your first thoughts after having seen the film in its entirety? This film triggers many emotions. Write down some key words and share with another student.
- Would you recommend this film to others and why?
- Towards the end of the film Agent Anderson re-visits the Deputy Sheriff’s wife. The Deputy Sheriff is a racist while his wife remains neutral. Her role is the dutiful wife. In this quote she seems to be facing her reality.
Mrs. Pell: “It's ugly. This whole thing is so ugly. Have you any idea what it's like to live with all this? People look at us and only see bigots and racists. Hatred isn't something you're born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation is what's said in the Bible... Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it... you breathe it. You marry it.”
Discuss this quote in small groups. Do you agree with Mrs. Pell? Do you sympathize with her? Who is responsible for bigotry and racism? Do we copy other people’s actions? Can racist people change?
- From the moment we are introduced to the local sheriff’s office we get a feel for which side they are on. What impressions did you have? Could you give any examples to support your thoughts?
- In a conversation between the two agents they discuss their admiration for the missing boys, yet Agent Anderson says that he feels that they were “being used”. Why and what does this imply?
- Agent Anderson visited the men’s barbershop twice in the course of the film. The first was at the start of the investigation and the second toward the end. How were these two scenes different?
- Agent Anderson: “You can talk to them but they won’t talk to you.” Why were black people afraid to speak with the FBI agents? Can you give examples of events in the film to support your answer?
- What did Agent Anderson notice in Mrs Pell’s wedding photograph?
- Why was a shot fired into the hotel room of the two agents and what was the significance of the burning cross outside?
- Why were the three men who were tried in court for arson not sentenced to prison? And why was there a rampage of fires afterwards?
- After viewing the burned home and barn of Aaron’s family, Agent Anderson says: “At least we know who did this.” Why does Agent Ward respond: “We did.”?
- At what point in the film does Agent Ward change his tactics and let Agent Anderson take over and why?
- Who called the KKK meeting and why?
- Why was the sheriff acquitted at the end of the film?
- Setting: the setting of this film is central to the story. Write a short text explaining how and why the setting is of importance in this particular film. Use any previous knowledge you have of the Civil Rights Movement and from this film to support your text. You may want to do a bit of research on the state of Mississippi. (Please note that Jessup County used in the film is a fictional county modeled after Neshoba County where the real murders took place.)
- FBI missing poster: study the faces of the three men and imagine you are one of them. All three had their youth and their desire to work for a cause, in common. They chose to devote a summer to working for the civil liberties of blacks. Tragically, their humanitarian desires cost them their lives. Choose one of the young men and write a letter to his friend/family telling about his summer plans to visit Mississippi to register black voters. Mention his strong interest in working for this civil rights cause.
- Many of the southern states had segregation laws referred to as “Jim Crow” laws. Learn more about these laws and write a summary of what you find. Include some examples by stating the law, the state in which the law was written and the year. Can you recall any examples of Jim Crow in the film?
- The national attention brought on by this case helped advance the Civil Rights Movement. Two historic acts were passed in the US government, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Learn about these two acts and how they brought blacks one step closer to equality.
- Does the KKK still exist today? Find information on the internet about the KKK organization and write a brief summary about their existence.
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