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United States Burning
by david   December 6, 2004
politics, gay, civil, rights

I love Mississippi Burning -- it's among my top maybe 15 or 20 favorite movies of all time, and those of you who know me well know how much I love movies, so that means a lot. This saturday afternoon, I blew off hanging the Christmas lights (as I'd promised Shannon), and watched it on TCM. For those who don't know MB, it's the story of a small Mississippi town in 1964, and the FBI investigation of the killing of three young civil rights workers. Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman play the lead FBI investigators, and Brad Dourif a young sheriff's deputy (Frances McDourmand plays his wife). The supporting cast is a sea of faces familiar to anyone who is a movie-going man, and everyone is superb.

What fascinates me most about the film is that, well, 1964 was not very damn long ago. When one of the minor characters says, "I wouldn't give it [killing a "nigger"] no more thought that ringing a cat's neck," all I can think about is that my Dad was entering his teens when this happened. When the mob of KKK members attacks a black congregation as they leave their church, all I can think about is that I would be born fewer than ten years later. Ten years. When Dafoe and Hackman find the young black boy cowering in the woods after being raped by the Clan, I think that, if I had been born just 10 or 15 years earlier, a couple thousand miles south, and with a different color skin, that kid could have been me.

My point is, this isn't some Merchant Ivory period film, despite the funny clothes and queer haircuts. This isn't the story of some long-ago, some history we must piece together from crumbling correspondence and long-forgotten diaries. This is the story of a generation ago. Of the kind of hatred, intolerance and murder that a white, middle-class kid from North Dakota, who's just entering his thirties and lives in Los Angeles, can barely comprehend. But like I said, it happened not so very long ago. And stories just like it happened, and kept happening at least until the late sixties and early seventies, when my parents were entering adulthood, and continue to happen even today. Sometimes it's African Americans who are targeted. Sometimes Hispanics or Asians. Sometimes it's Muslims, or anyone who "looks like" one. Sometimes, it's homosexuals. But it's all the same story, over and over again.

Which is why I can't explain my surprise at the outcome of this year's election. Why I can't explain my surprise that hatred and fear of gay marriage, hatred and fear of the Arab world, should turn the tide of a national election. It's not that we are "not so far removed" from that 1964 -- I think it's more accurate to say that we are not removed at all.

I'm not saying that everyone who voted for Bush did so with hate in their heart, any more than I'd say that everyone in the south in 1964 was a violent bigot. On the contrary, most did not. But many did vote for Bush out of fear of change. Many voted out of fear of attack from some amorphous, barely defined evil "other." Many voted out of false hope that someday they'd be millionaires, benefitting from the Bush administration's economic policies. And some, too many, voted out of hatred for the different -- in this case, the homosexual.

When the local Clan representative in Mississippi Burning rails against the FBI's (and federal government's and the evil Northern "other's") attempt to find these boys, bring justice, and change a culture of hate, he calls them all "Communists and Atheists." Those words are familiar to all of us who worked so hard this past election to change things. McDormand's character tells Hackman's that, in grade school, the folks of Mississippi are taught that Segregation is espoused by the bible (Genesis 9, verse 27). Now, the zealots point to Ephesians (5:22-33) to show that their hatred and persecution of homosexuals is biblically justified.

Rent Mississippi Burning when you get a chance, and watch it. Watch it to see our history. Watch it to see our present. And watch it to see, if we can't figure out a way to create change, real change, and soon, our future. This is us. Not all of us, not even most of us. But enough of us that we should be scared as hell, and that we should do our damnedest to change. The United States is burning. It has been for a long time. But in recent decades, in most of the country, the flames are slow, and quiet, and all but invisible. The hate is secret and insidious and cloaked in lies, in false religious vigor, in false righteous outrage. That hate can only be destroyed by spreading a message of love and acceptance, by stamping it out where it lives in our hearts, and by making certain our children are taught that hatred and discrimination, against anyone, is wrong. My parents, who were kids in 1964, taught that to me. Now, we all need to teach each other.


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