How does the opening scene of “Mississippi Burning,” directed by Alan Parker, prepare the audience for the theme and narrative of the film? Mississippi Burning is a thought-provoking film exploring racism and segregation between black and white people in a small southern town in the United States of America. The film is set in the late 1960s, during the Civil Rights Act, where the southern community of America was unwilling to change their lifestyle and include black citizens in society. This led to economic and social oppression, whereby poverty in the south increased and increased violence and crime, which meant that it was a dangerous place to live, especially for black citizens. As a result, the film contains many symbols and underlying meanings which the average audience would not understand.
The opening sequence of any film clearly establishes the mood and setting of the film. It needs to be interesting and powerful to captivate the attention of the audience. In Mississippi Burning, the opening scene establishes the mood as being one of anger and hatred. There is an establishing shot of a dull and dilapidated washroom, with two sinks, one of better quality than the other. Symbolically, the vertical drain pipe acts like a division between the two sinks and the two races. A white man enters the shot and uses the sophisticated washbasin, whilst a young black boy washes his hands in the unclean sink. This immediately informs the audience about what the film is going to be about. Also, some of the audience, who did not experience segregation, get an insight into what life was like during this period of time.
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Alan Parker uses lighting to great significance. The opening shot is dull and unlit, and significantly the light through the window shines on the sink, which the white citizens use. This has an unconscious impact on the audience, and they realize that the white citizens are being favoured in this town. However, what the director is also trying to portray is that the economic recession has had an impact on the whole society. The black people are only slightly poorer than the white people because the two societies use the same dilapidated washroom. This tells us that the whole community is not as socially or economically advanced as the northern areas of America.
The background music is also symbolic. The soundtrack suggests that the film is of a serious nature because it creates an atmosphere of grief by using a lament “Blues” song, originated by black African-Americans, who were enslaved by white people and used this type of music to express their feelings. This further cements the racism link. The images of the next establishing shot, a burning church, combines excellently with the music to make the scene very depressing and dull. The church has a moral message. It suggests that these people are against Christian values and suggests that this is a place of hell. The burning cross is an oblique reference to the Ku Klux Klan, a group of white people who terrified black and Jewish people. As the church finally collapses, the camera zooms in, making the experience more intense.
Alan Parker then uses several camera techniques, which allow the audience to take in the symbolic information. The camera pans up, and the flames die down, and there is a black background with white text saying “Directed by Alan Parker.” The director combined these images of the washroom and burning church; to make the audience tense before the action unfolds. An important aspect of the opening sequence is that there has been no dialogue so far, which sustains tensions, and the silence during the opening scenes creates a menacing atmosphere. The whole screen then becomes black, and the next establishing shot is a car in the black night, with two-thirds of the screen still black, representing the menacing night. Finally, the background music has stopped, and we can hear the real sounds of the cars.
We then get a close-up shot of the unknown faces in the car; we can’t distinguish who they are at the moment, although it seems ironic in a sense that there are two white people and one black person in the same car. In the next shot, the camera angle expands to show that the road is in the middle of nowhere and that there is nobody to stop an attack from happening. The camera then switches into the car, where the lighting is very dark, but the characters seem quite relaxed. Unfortunately, it seems too calm, and I think the director is leading the audience into a false sense of security because the scene’s mood doesn’t seem to fit with the outline of the film. Then a drumbeat starts, which symbolizes the “Death March” and adds to the narrative tension. It prepares the audience for the death of someone, possibly the foreigners in the car.
The camera then changes to a long shot, and the audience spots another anonymous car, following the first car. This second car, an iconic truck of the southern white American citizens, has its lights turned off because they want to remain ominous. The audience feels unsympathetic and sinister towards the mysterious people in the truck because the viewers are unaware of who they are and what they look like. The director then increases narrative tension by increasing the sound volume as the truck approaches the saloon car. This also increases the narrative pace of the film, and the audience knows that they are about to witness something dramatic. Then all of a sudden, the tension is cut, and a police siren starts to wail, and a side shot of the two cars shows that the truck behind is a police car.
As the two men get out of the police car, the unsure audience is eager to find out if these men are real policemen. Still, the director uses lighting very cleverly to hide the identity of the two men, which adds mystery and suspense to the scene’s atmosphere. The viewers know that everything in the shade is underhand. The short scenes and good use of cutting allow an increase in narrative tension and pace of the film. The scene seems somewhat interrogational, where the policeman shines a light on the people’s faces in the car. As soon as the man who got out of the car talks, his personality becomes apparent. His appearance makes him seem psychotic and menacing, and he uses impolite and informal speech. He has a southern accent and comments on the smell of the person in the car, calling him a “nigger loving Jew boy.” The audience immediately dislikes this vulgar, racist and aggressive character.
In complete contrast, the northern city is polite, and the director wants to portray him as a young, idealistic, civilized man. He refers to the police officer as “Sir” after realizing that he is an aggressive man. The audience feels sympathetic towards the driver as he is polite and has feminine features. The black man in the back knows what’s happening and tells his friend not to look at the face of the southern man, but it’s too late, and he shoots the driver. The audience hears three shots and assumes that all three men in the car are dead. Although there are no images, the sounds of the racist killers laughing about the atrocities they had just committed bring a sad and hateful mood to the opening sequence. Again, there is a pause of a couple of seconds, with just a black background, allowing the audience to reflect on the events that have just happened. There were some powerful images in the previous scenes, which are vital for the rest of the movie. Therefore, it prepares the audience for the rest of the film, and it gives them knowledge of the historical, social and economic context of the film.