Date of this Version
Kristen Hoerl, "Remembering and Forgetting Black Power in Mississippi Burning," in Barry Brummett, ed., Uncovering Hidden Rhetorics: Social Issues in Disguise (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2008), pp 13–30.
Although critics are correct to point out that Mississippi Burning did not faithfully depict historical events surrounding the real-life disappearances of [civil rights activists] Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, I argue that these criticisms overlook some of the ways in which the film advances the cause of racial justice. On a formal level, Mississippi Burning evokes the struggles experienced by members of the Black Power movement, a social movement that emerged on the heels of civil rights. Looking at the film in the context of this movement, I argue that Mississippi Burning is a homology for the Black Power movement. Barry Brummett describes a homology as a situation in which “two or more kinds of experience appear or can be shown to be structured according to the same pattern in some important particulars of their material manifestations.” In this chapter, I explain how the film’s plot revolves around the types of conflicts and solutions to racial injustice that propelled the Black Power movement.
To set the context for understanding how this film parallels Black Power, I describe the events that propelled the Black Power movement and the rhetoric of Black Power articulated by Stokely Carmichael, a prominent Black Power spokesperson. Then I analyze Mississippi Burning's plot in the context of Carmichael’s speeches. By interpreting the film’s narrative in the context of Carmichael’s rhetoric, I demonstrate how the film’s storyline formally embodies the conflicts that Carmichael experienced and described during Black Power’s heyday. I also demonstrate how the solutions arrived at by the film’s protagonists mirror Black Power’s response to racial injustices toward the end of the 1960s. By formally enacting the reasoning processes engaged in by Black Power proponents, the film challenges the justice of the then existing political system. The Black Power movement was an important response to ongoing racial injustices at the end of the civil rights era. By looking at the ways in which the film formally depicts similar responses to injustice, this analysis offers unique insights about the rhetorical role of this “civil rights” film. It also challenges the assumption that historically situated films must represent events with fidelity to the past in order to make a statement about social injustice and political power.