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Slavery, cotton, sugar and the Mississippi - they made the American South prosper. But the money, power and prestige are intertwined with racism in the history of America's greatest river. The river is still a symbol of slavery - and freedom. In UK director Alan Parker's film, Mississippi Burning, Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe play FBI investigators who try to solve the murder of three civil rights workers amidst the fires of racial hatred, a story based on the 1964 murders of three young men in Mississippi. The film was nominated for several Oscars including Best Film.




Alan Parker:
"I have written these notes ...as a way of offering a little illumination of the film making process...I've tried to be as honest as possible - well, as honest as vanity, memory and prudence allow. Films are frankly just too difficult to make for a little protectionism not to creep in now and again."

"The power of the opening murder scene and the possibilities that the subsequent story offered drew me to it immediately. It's rare that projects developed in the Hollywood system have any potential for social or political comment and the accessibility of the fictionalised story that (scriptwriter) Chris Gerolmo hadconstructed possibly had allowed this one to slip through.

"(But) it was clear I had much to learn. After all, in 1964 I was in England, a long way from the turmoil of Mississippi. The working class area of North London where I was born and grew up the racial problems of the last twenty years had not yet erupted although the seeds were being sown. Class bigotry and economic inequalities were very much part of my life and about which I felt very strongly."

"With the help of an armful of maps and newspaper cuttings Colesberry (producer Robert Colesberry) located the dusty back road where Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney had been shot. The two of us stood on the actual murder spot for a few minutes in silence, realising that true life, and death, are so much more important than the movies."

"Our most difficult search was for disused churches - or to be more accurate, disused churches that the owners would be kind enough to let us burn down.

"By way of punishing ourselves unnecessarily we had decided to shoot the many night scenes first. Our first night's filming was to burn down our first church, not only once but twice.

"Everyone stood there silently, mesmerised by the flames as they devoured the little church - strange voyeurs to a movie charade that in reality would have been impossible to watch."

"The small town we needed to create for the film was more difficult to find than I'd imagined. It had to be cinematically interesting, accurate to the period and place, but also convenient to base a crew of a hundred.

"In Canton, Mississippi, whilst suspiciously scouting the back streets, Bob Colesberry and I were followed and stopped by the local Sheriff - an eerie reminder of the beginnings of our story. At the side of the road, with shaking hands, we pathetically offered our Directors Guild cards as proof of identity. Fortunately, the Sheriff was a good deal more amenable than his counterparts 24 years ago might have been. He was also black."

"March 8: The motel scene with Gene and Willem. This was tough on Gene as we'd only just begun filming and suddenly he had, probably, the most difficult monologue in the film where he tells the story of his own father's deep-rooted racist attitudes in answer to Willem's question, "Where does it come from, all this hatred?" The black underclass have always been there as a pathetic comforter to the poor whites - there was always someone worse off than they were. The threat of black political equality (and possible economic equality) is obviously not the only explanation for the bigotry, but an important one. It also served to explain much of Anderson's own attitudes. "Where does that leave you?" says Ward. Anderson answers, "With an old man so full of hate, he didn't know that being poor was what was killing him."

"March 25: The Mayor has hanged himself. I'd originally written a much longer speech from Ward than appears in the finished film. I wanted to sum up all of our complicity in racist attitudes to try and leave the audience with the thought (and maybe guilt) that racism isn't unique to a bunch of rednecks in Mississippi 24 years ago. It's just as prevalent today. Maybe more so. Maybe more in the North than in the South. And we're all involved."

You like baseball Mr Anderson?

Yeah, it's the only game where a black man can wave a stick
at a white man without starting a riot.

"March 22: The Morgue at the University Medical Centre. This was the actual location where the bodies of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were brought after their discovery in the earthen dam. Watching the black plastic body bags wheeled down that very same hospital corridor reiterated the realities and more importantly, our own responsibilities that lay beneath our fictional story."

"April 12: Gene walks into the 'Social Club' for his confrontation with Frank Bailey and Deputy Pell. Watching Gene at work in this scene made me realise how lucky I was to work with him. There aren't many actors who understand, as he does, how to block, pace and play a scene and his instant dissection of the work at hand with a minimum of 'actory' bullshit was a revelation throughout the film. I know I promised no movie publicity puke but I sincerely believe that working with him would be how it might have been working with Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart.

"I can't say I ever became 'pals' with him, he retains his privacy and distance from everyone, but I never stopped watching him and marvelling at secrets that so few actors seem to have uncovered. If this sounds like bullshit, it's what I believe. Warren Beatty said to me before we started, that Gene was the finest American movie actor, and I happen to agree with him."

"...the Governor of Mississippi, Ray Malbus, had invited us to lunch. He was extremely gracious and encouraging. His concern Mississippi had a chance at a future, it had to own up to its past."

A journey along Old Man River.....the Mississippi, with boatman Urban

Me-see-zee-be, is how the Chippewa Indians called it; they lived on its banks and knew what they were talking about. It means old, strong, vast and deep river. Less than two centuries ago, no-one knew where the river rose. In 1823, Costantino Beltrame arrived in St Louis, fired with exploratory passion. Trusting the general consensus that it rose somewhere far north in a pine forest inhabited by Indians, he set sail on the Virginia towards Port Anthony. From there, he kept heading north by canoe with some Indian guides.

He met with Indian chiefs proudly displaying dozens of scalps on their belts before arriving at a small lake in Minnesota, the source of the Mississippi, some 2,550 kms from its giant delta on the Gulf of Mexico.

But poor old Beltrame became the first political victim of the Mississippi. Returning to New Orleans, he announced his discovery with great zeal, comparing himself with Icarus, the Phoenicians and Marco Polo. This didn't go down too well with the sanguine locals, who dismissed him as a raving charlatan. It didn't help matters that in his excitement, he failed to provide any instructions on how to get to this little lake, which he had named after the woman he loved, Julia.

Nine years later, two Americans, Zebulon Pike and Henry Schoolcraft (names destined for history) reached the lake, and promptly named it Itasca, formed by parts of the Latin words Veritas Caput, meaning the heart of the matter. (Beltrame, somewhat miffed, went to Europe and published a book there about his "pilgrimage", which duly earned him accolades and seats on various scientific academies. He was appeased, though the two Americans retained their claim to fame.)

Yet the real source of the Mississippi is still a mystery, for a little river flows into Itasca from Lake Elk, which is joined by other rivers and canals to other lakes...In other words, it's a river with no beginning and no end, a giant spiritual metaphor, one instinctively understood by the thousands of slaves brought through New Orleans.

It begins modestly enough, first heading North from the lake, just three meters wide, thirty centimetres deep. But it is determined, and after 100 kms, it turns sharply to the East, into lake Bemidji. When it leaves here, it is already 70 m wide, and heading South. Like the civil rights movement of the 60s, it is gathering force.

About 40 kms from St Louis, the Missouri joins the Mississippi, then a little further on, the Ohio joins in. The Gulf of Mexico is still 1730 kms away, only 82 metres lower. Here, the Mississippi takes on a new personality, becoming an enraged, schizophrenic force, flowing on a bed 1300 to 1500 metres wide, with bends, loops and twists. The blacks christened it Old Devil, and the Army Corps had to build 3500 kms of dikes and embankments - levees.

From Baton Rouge to New Orleans in Louisiana, the river is 13 to 30 metres deep. It runs past the many old plantation homes, like Houmas House and Nottoway (the latter Australian owned) which are now open to the public. Their grand proportions and white facades stand as monuments to the era of Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler.

From 1772 when New Orleans was founded, the Mississippi became a major waterway. In a few short years, seven thousand slaves were brought over from Africa. By 1790, half of New Orleans' 80,000 inhabitants were slaves.

At another time, Grenville, once on the riverside, became an inland town when the river suddenly changed course. In 1927, the Old Devil rose 17 metres and forced a million people to flee their homes. Over the last 8000 years (a mere instant in geology) the delta of the Mississippi has changed six times, and formed much of what is now Louisiana with its alluvial deposits brought down from Northern States. Once more, the river imitated political life, foreshadowing the Southward move of America’s political morality.

Even now, after countless engineering schemes, the Old Devil is intent on moving its delta some 200 kms from its present site. This will be its seventh delta, and is already beginning to form east of the present one: it is the Atchafalaya River into which, north of Baton Rouge, more than 30% of the Mississippi waters pour.

River barges 30 metres long used to ply the Mississippi, and in 1811 the first steamboat, The Clermont, was put into service, followed by the Washington, working from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.

Steamboats would often race each other neck and neck, a recklessly dangerous escapade which was largely responsible for the drowning of some 40,000 passengers in the course of 30 years, not to mention countless burst boilers. But every time one ship blew up, another was built. One exploded a short way out of Memphis, killing 1550 of the 2134 soldiers on board, who were returning from the Civil War. The toll was 37 higher than the Titanic's. Many of the sunken ships now lie under farmlands, as the river has kept changing course.

In 1891 a farmer's plough hit the top of the main mast of the Brennan White, a steamboat which had sunk in 1850 with US$100,000 in its safe. The farmer worked for three years, digging away at it, alone and in absolute secrecy.

He reached the safe one night, and went to bed exhausted but exhilarated, anxious to be up at dawn to try and open it. In his rush, he had a bit of an accident, which delayed him three days; when he got back to the wreck, there was nothing there. The river had risen and flooded his farmlands, and as it subsided it carried away the sunken treasure chest.

But once the Mississippi reaches the delta, it is a vast swamp of canals and marshes which slows it down to a lazy meander. It is the home of outsize exotica, like frogs as big as soccer balls, alligators that swallow 100 kg turtles, sturgeons over 2 metres long, and sheep-fish that grind the shells of mollusks in their jaws and use their swim bladder as a percussion instrument.

Their rhythms have accompanied the spirituals, the blues and the legendary jazz that the blacks squeezed out of their souls over the last four generations, all along the river banks. Here, too, the Mississippi echoes its own social history.

It’s past is buried, now - but not forgotten.

Published January 1998

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Elmer Thomas seems totally unaware of the irony of her situation as tour mistress at Nottoway. Tall, well groomed and dignified, Elmer was born and bred in the area, and had always hoped that somebody would "fix the place up" one day.

She takes visitors through the 64 room mansion, telling them its history, its brief part in the Civil War, and about the Randolphs who built it. John Randolph's sugar plantation grew to 7000 acres, and it was worked by slaves. He married Emily Liddel, who brought with her a dowry of $20,000 and 20 slaves. (Andrew L. Urban stayed in the Randolph’s master bedroom to get closer to the mood of the place.)

Standing in the grounds of Nottoway on a typical misty autumn morning, you can watch the occasional sugar cane cart trundle past, down River Road with its cane bundled high, the levee rising five or more metres, hiding the river from view. When a paddle steamer goes by, a replica of The Mississippi Queen or Delta Queen, all that can be seen from here is the top of the funnel, moving, it seems, along the top of the embankment, like some weird Punch and Judy show, its hurdy gurdy music hanging unanchored in the air as the funnel floats away.



Down the road is the Madonna Chapel, built in 1902 by Tony Gullo, an Italian farmer who promised the Virgin Mary he would build her a church if he recovered from a long and painful illness.

Tony's bravado pulled him through, but he was a man of modest means, (the locals had to donate the timber) so the church is rather small, the smallest in the world, in fact, seating two or three people. Still, there it is on the banks of the Old Devil, locked up but with the key in the letterbox next to the door. And although mass is celebrated only once a year, Rita Zito, a neighbourly caretaker, keeps two candles lit next to the statute of Mary, and the flowers fresh.

This is Point Pleasant, a small, predominantly black community in Iberville Parish, closer to Baton Rouge than New Orleans. On Sunday mornings, the meagre, timber-and-tin local church is surrounded by battered old cars, and the cluttered, weather beaten varendahs are guarded by grannies with greying, blank faces. It's eerie.

The river flows through thousands of bayous in this section, its overall length varies from year to year, and it is infamous for sudden, dramatic changes. It has swallowed up whole towns: between Cairo and New Orleans, it obliterated Kaskaskia, the old capital of Illinois, and Nueva Madrid, founded by the Spaniards who hoped to make it the capital of the New World. Instead, it was buried in the riverbed in the 1811 earthquake, which turned the Mississippi into a torrent that crashed down on the houses, river boats and the fishing fleet.



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