Gerolmo began work on the original script in 1985, after researching the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. He and producer Frederick Zollo took the script to Orion Pictures, and Parker was subsequently hired by the studio to direct the film. Both the writer and director had disputes over the script, which resulted in Orion allowing Parker to make uncredited rewrites. Principal photography commenced in March 1988 and concluded in May of that year with a budget of $15 million. The film was shot in a number of locales in Mississippi and Alabama.
In 1964, three civil rights workers (two white and one black) who organize a voter registry for African Americans in Jessup County, Mississippi go missing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation sends two agents, Rupert Anderson—a former Mississippi sheriff—and Alan Ward, to investigate. The pair find it difficult to conduct interviews with the local townspeople, as Sheriff Ray Stuckey and his deputies exert influence over the public and are linked to a branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The wife of Deputy Sheriff Clinton Pell reveals to Anderson in a discreet conversation that the three missing men have been murdered. Their bodies are later found buried in an earthen dam. Stuckey deduces Mrs Pell's confession to the FBI and informs Pell, who brutally beats his wife in retribution.
Anderson and Ward devise a plan to indict members of the Klan for the murders. They arrange a kidnapping of Mayor Tilman, taking him to a remote shack. There, he is left with a black man, who threatens to castrate him unless he talks. The abductor is an FBI operative assigned to intimidate Tilman, who gives him a full description of the killings, including the names of those involved. Although his statement is not admissible in court due to coercion, Tilman's information proves valuable to the investigators.
Anderson and Ward exploit the new information to concoct a plan, luring identified KKK collaborators to a bogus meeting. The Klan members soon realize it is a set-up and leave without discussing the murders. The FBI then concentrate on Lester Cowens, a Klansman of interest, who exhibits a nervous demeanor which the agents believe might yield a confession. The FBI pick him up and interrogate him. Later, Cowens is at home when his window is shattered by a shotgun blast. After seeing a burning cross on his lawn, Cowens tries to flee in his truck, but is caught by several hooded men who intend to hang him. The FBI arrive to rescue him, having staged the whole scenario; the hooded men are revealed to be other agents.
Cowens, believing that his fellow Klansmen have threatened his life because of his admissions to the FBI, incriminates his accomplices. The Klansmen are charged with civil rights violations, as this can be prosecuted at the federal level. Most of the perpetrators are found guilty and receive sentences ranging from three to ten years in prison. Stuckey, however, is acquitted of all charges, and Tilman is later found dead by the FBI in an apparent suicide. Mrs. Pell returns to her home, which has been completely ransacked by vandals, and resolves to stay and rebuild her life, free of her husband. Before leaving town, Anderson and Ward visit an integrated congregation gathered at an African-American cemetery, where the black civil rights activist's desecrated gravestone reads, "Not Forgotten".
On June 21, 1964, civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were arrested in Philadelphia, Mississippi by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, and taken to a Neshoba County jail. The three men had been working on the "Freedom Summer" campaign, attempting to prepare and register African Americans to vote. Price charged Chaney with speeding and held the other two men for questioning. Price released the three men on bail seven hours later and followed them out of town. After Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner failed to return to Meridian, Mississippi on time, workers for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) placed calls to the Neshoba County jail, asking if the police had any information on their whereabouts. Two days later, FBI agent John Proctor and a team of ten FBI agents began their investigation in Neshoba County. The FBI received a tip about a burning station wagon seen in the woods off of Highway 21, about 13 miles northeast of Philadelphia; the vehicle was a CORE station wagon that had belonged to the missing men. The case became known as "MIBURN"—short for "Mississippi Burning"— and top FBI inspectors were sent to help with the investigation.
On August 4, 1964, the bodies of the three men were found after an informant—nicknamed "Mr. X" in FBI reports—passed along a tip to federal authorities. They were discovered underneath an earthen dam on a 253-acre farm located a few miles outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. All three had been shot and killed. Nineteen men were indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for violating the workers' civil rights. On October 27, 1967, a federal trial conducted in Meridian resulted in seven of the nineteen defendants, including Price, being convicted with sentences ranging from three to ten years; nine were acquitted, and the jury deadlocked on three others.
In 2002, Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger, discovered new evidence regarding the murders. He also located new witnesses and pressured the state of Mississippi to reopen the case. Stevenson High School teacher Barry Bradford and three of his students aided Mitchell in his investigation after the three students decided to research the "Mississippi Burning" case for a history project.
The identity of Mr. X. was a closely held secret for 40 years. In the process of reopening the case, Mitchell, Bradford and the three students discovered the identity of Mr. X; the informant was revealed to be Maynard King, a highway patrolman who revealed the location of the civil rights workers' bodies to FBI Agent Joseph Sullivan. In 2005, one perpetrator, Edgar Ray Killen, was charged for his part in the crimes. He was convicted of three counts of manslaughter, and is currently serving a 60-year sentence.
In 1985, screenwriter Chris Gerolmo discovered an article that excerpted a chapter from the book Inside Hoover's F.B.I., which chronicled the FBI's investigation into the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. While writing a draft script, Gerolmo brought it to Frederick Zollo, who had produced Gerolmo's first screenplay Miles from Home (1988). Zollo helped Gerolmo develop the original draft before they sold it to Orion Pictures. The studio then began its search for a director to helm the project. Filmmakers Miloš Forman and John Schlesinger were among those considered for to helm the project.
In September 1987, Alan Parker was given a copy of Gerolmo's script by Orion's executive vice president and co-founder, Mike Medavoy. When Parker traveled to Tokyo, Japan to act as a juror for the 1987 Tokyo International Film Festival, his colleague Robert F. Colesberry began researching the time period, and compiled books, newspaper articles, live news footage and photographs related to the 1964 murders. Upon returning to the United States, Parker met with Colesberry in New York and spent several months viewing the research. The director also began selecting the creative team; the production of Mississippi Burning reunited Parker with many of his past collaborators, including Colesberry, casting directors Howard Feuer and Juliet Taylor, director of photography Peter Biziou, editor Gerry Hambling, costume designer Aude Bronson-Howard, production designer Geoffrey Kirkland, camera operator Michael Roberts, and music composer Trevor Jones.
Gerolmo described his original draft script as "a big, passionate, violent detective story set against the greatest sea-change in American life in the 20th century, the civil rights movement". For legal reasons, the names of the people and certain details related to the FBI's investigation were changed. On presenting Clinton Pell's wife as an informant, Gerolmo said, "... the fact that no one knew who Mr. X, the informant, was, left that as a dramatic possibility for me, in my Hollywood movie version of the story. That's why Mr. X became the wife of one of the conspirators." The abductor of Mayor Tilman was originally written as a Mafia hitman who forces a confession by putting a pistol in Tillman's mouth. Gerolmo was inspired by Gregory Scarpa, a mob enforcer recruited by the FBI during their search for Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner.
After Parker was hired to direct the film, Gerolmo had completed two drafts. Parker met with Gerolmo at Orion's offices in Century City, Los Angeles, where they began work on a third draft script. Both the writer and director however had repeated disagreements over the focus of the story. To resolve the issue, Orion executives in New York gave Parker one month to make uncredited rewrites before green-lighting the project.
Parker made several changes from Gerolmo's original draft. He omitted the Mafia hitman and created the character Agent Monk, a black FBI specialist who kidnaps Tilman. The scene in which Frank Bailey brutally beats a news cameraman was based on an actual event; Parker and Colesberry were inspired by a news outtake found during their research, in which a CBS News cameraman was assaulted by a suspect in the 1964 murder case. Parker also wrote a sex scene involving Rupert Anderson and Mrs. Pell. The scene was omitted during filming after Gene Hackman, who portrays Anderson, suggested to Parker that the relationship between the two characters be more discreet. By January 4, 1988, Parker had written a complete shooting script, which he submitted to Orion executives. Gerolmo did not visit the production during principal photography, due to the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike.
Parker held casting calls in New York, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Orlando, New Orleans, Raleigh and Nashville. The filmmakers did not retain the names of actual people; many of the supporting characters were composites of people related to the murder case. Gene Hackman plays Rupert Anderson, an FBI agent and former Mississippi sheriff. Brian Dennehy was briefly considered for the role before Orion suggested Hackman. During the screenwriting process, Parker frequently discussed the project with Hackman. Hackman said, "... it felt right to do something of historical import. It was an extremely intense experience, both the content of the film and the making of it in Mississippi."
Orion was less resolute in terms of who they wanted for the role of Agent Alan Ward. After filming The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Willem Dafoe expressed interest in playing Ward, and Parker traveled to Los Angeles, where he met with the actor to discuss the role. Dafoe was cast shortly thereafter. To prepare for the role, Dafoe researched the time period and Neshoba County. He also read Willie Morris's 1983 novel The Courting of Marcus Dupree, and looked at 1960s documentary footage detailing how the media covered the murder case. Frances McDormand plays Mrs. Pell, the wife of Deputy Sheriff Clinton Pell. On working with Hackman, McDormand said, "... in Mississippi Burning, I didn't do research. All I did was listen to [Hackman]. He had an amazing capacity for not giving away any part of himself (in read-throughs). But the minute we got on the set, little blinds on his eyes flipped up and everything was available. It was mesmerizing. He's really believable, and it was like a basic acting lesson."
Gailard Sartain plays Ray Stuckey, the sheriff of Jessup County — a character based on former Neshoba County sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey. Sartain described Stuckey as "an elected official ... who has to be gregarious - but with sinister overtones". Stephen Tobolowsky plays Clayton Townley, a Grand Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The character is based on White Knights leader Samuel Bowers. Michael Rooker plays Frank Bailey, a Klansman involved in the murders of the three civil rights activists. Pruitt Taylor Vince, who had a small role in Parker's previous film Angel Heart, plays Lester Cowens, a Klansman who unknowingly becomes a pawn in the FBI's investigation. Vince described the character as "goofy, stupid and geeky" and stated, "I never had a prejudiced bone in my body. It gave me a funny feeling to play this guy with a hood and everything. But when you're in the midst of it, you just concentrate on getting through it."
Kevin Dunn joined the production in February 1988, appearing in his acting debut as FBI Agent Bird. Tobin Bell, also making his feature film debut, plays Agent Stokes, an FBI enforcer hired by Anderson to interrogate Cowens. Bell was first asked by Parker to read for the role of Clinton Pell, a role that was ultimately given to Brad Dourif.
Appearing as the three civil rights activists are Geoffrey Nauffts as "Goatee", a character based on Michael Schwerner; Rick Zieff as "Passenger", based on Andrew Goodman; and Christopher White as "Black Passenger", based on James Chaney. Producers Frederick Zollo and Robert F. Colesberry also make appearances in the film; Zollo briefly appears as a news reporter, and Colesberry appears as a news cameraman who is brutally beaten by Frank Bailey. While scouting locations in Jackson, Mississippi, Parker arranged an open casting call for local actors and extras. He and Colesberry met music teacher Lannie McBride, who appears as a gospel singer in the film.
During the screenwriting process, Parker and Colesberry began scouting locations. They visited eight states based on suggestions made by the location department. The shooting script required that a total of 62 locations be used for filming. In December 1987, Parker and Colesberry traveled to Mississippi to visit the stretch of road where Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were murdered. The filmmakers were initially reluctant about filming in Mississippi; they expressed interest in filming in Forsyth County, Georgia before being persuaded by John Horne, head of the Mississippi's film commission. Parker also met with Mississippi governor Ray Mabus, who voiced his support of the film's production.
Parker and Colesberry looked at locations near Jackson, Mississippi, where they set up production offices at a Holiday Inn hotel. They also visited Canton, Mississippi before travelling to Vaiden, Mississippi, where they scouted more than 200 courthouses that could be used for filming. Parker and Colesberry had difficulty finding a small town for the story setting before choosing LaFayette, Alabama to act as scenes set in the fictional town of Jessup County, Mississippi, with other scenes being shot in a number of locales in Mississippi.
Principal photography began on March 7, 1988 with a budget of $15 million. Filming began in Jackson, Mississippi, where the production team filmed a church being burned down. The sequence required a multiple-camera setup; a total of three cameras were used during the shoot. On March 8, the production team filmed a scene set in a motel where Anderson (Hackman) delivers a monologue to Ward (Dafoe). On March 10, production moved to a remote corner of Mississippi, where the crew filmed the burning of a parish church.
On March 11, the production filmed scenes set in a pig farm, where a young boy is confronted and attacked by three perpetrators. A night later, the crew shot the film's opening sequence, in which the three civil rights workers are murdered. From March 14 to March 18, the crew filmed the burning of several more churches, as well as scenes set in a farm. On March 22, the crew filmed scenes set in a morgue that was located inside the University of Mississippi Medical Center, exactly the same location where the bodies of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were transported. A day later, Parker and the crew filmed a scene set in a cotton field. The art department had to dress each plant with layers of cotton, as the cotton plants had not fully bloomed. The crew also filmed the abduction of Mayor Tilman (R. Lee Ermey) and his subsequent interrogation by FBI agent Monk (Badja Djola). On March 24, the production moved to Raymond, Mississippi, where the crew filmed a scene at the John Bell Williams Airport. Depicting Monk's departure, the scene was choreographed by Parker and the cast members so that it could be filmed in one take.
The production then moved to Vaiden, Mississippi to film scenes set in the Carroll County Courthouse, where several courtroom scenes, as well as scenes set in Sheriff Ray Stuckey's office were filmed. The production moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the crew filmed a funeral procession. On April 11, 1988, the crew filmed a scene set in the Cedar Hill Cemetery. From April 15 to April 16, the production moved to the Mississippi River valley to depict the FBI and United States Navy's search for the three civil rights workers. The art department recreated a Choctaw Indian Village on the location, based on old photographs. On April 23, the crew filmed a scene depicting a Citizens' Councils rally with 750 extras. On April 25, the crew returned to Jackson, Mississippi, where an unused building was to recreate a diner that was found in Alabama during location scouting. A day later, Hackman and Dafoe filmed their opening scene, in which the characters Anderson and Ward drive to Jessup County, Mississippi.
On April 27, the production moved to LaFayette, Alabama for the remainder of filming. From April 28 to April 29, Parker and his crew filmed scenes set in Mrs. Pell's home. On May 5, the production shot one of the film's final scenes, in which Anderson discovers Mrs. Pell's home trashed. On May 13, the crew filmed scenes in a former LaFayette movie theatre, which had now become a tractor tire store. The art department restored the theatre's interiors to reflect the time period. Filming concluded on May 14, 1988 after the production filmed a Ku Klux Klan speech that is overseen by the FBI.
The film score for Mississippi Burning was produced, arranged and composed by Trevor Jones; the film marked his second collaboration with Parker after Angel Heart. In addition to Jones's score, the soundtrack features several gospel songs, including "Walk on by Faith" performed by Lannie McBride, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" performed by Mahalia Jackson and "Try Jesus" performed by Vesta Williams. A motion picture soundtrack album was released by the recording labels Antilles Records and Island Records.
Mississippi Burning held its world premiere at the Uptown Theatre in Washington, D.C. on December 2, 1988. In addition to the cast and crew, the premiere was attended by various politicians, ambassadors and political reporters. At the premiere, United States Senator Ted Kennedy voiced his support of the film, stating, "This movie will educate millions of Americans too young to recall the sad events of that summer about what life was like in this country before the enactment of the civil rights laws."
Mississippi Burning was given a platform release, first being released in a small number of cities in North America before opening wide across the United States and Canada; the film opened in Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto and New York City on December 9, 1988. The film's distributor, Orion Pictures, was confident that the limited release would qualify the film for Academy Awards consideration, and generate strong word-of-mouth support from audiences. Mississippi Burning was released across North America on January 27, 1989, playing at 1,058 theaters, and expanding to 1,074 theatres by its ninth week.
Mississippi Burning's first week of limited release saw it take $225,034—an average of $25,003 per theater. The film grossed an additional $160,628 in its second weekend. More theaters were added during the limited run, and on January 27, 1989, the film officially entered wide release. By the end of its opening weekend of wide release, the film had grossed $3,545,305, securing the number five position at the domestic box office with an overall domestic gross of $14,726,112. The film generated strong local interest in the state of Mississippi, resulting in sold-out showings in the first four days of wide release. After seven weeks of wide release, Mississippi Burning ended its theatrical run with an overall gross of $34,603,943. In North America, it was the thirty-third highest-grossing film of 1988 and the seventeenth highest-grossing R-rated film of that year.
Mississippi Burning was released on VHS on July 27, 1989 by Orion Home Video. A "Collector's Edition" of the film was released on LaserDisc on April 3, 1998. The film was released on DVD on May 8, 2001 by MGM Home Entertainment. Special features for the DVD include an audio commentary by Parker and a theatrical trailer. The film was released on Blu-ray disc on May 12, 2015 by the home video label Twilight Time, with a limited release of 3,000 copies. The Blu-ray presents the film in 1080p high definition, and contains the additional materials found on the MGM Home Entertainment DVD.
The review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes sampled 18 reviews, and gave Mississippi Burning a score of 89%, with an average score of 6.4 out of 10. Another review aggregator, Metacritic, assigned the film a weighted average score of 65 out of 100 based on 11 reviews from mainstream critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
The film received a mixed critical response. In a review for Time magazine entitled "Just Another Mississippi Whitewash", author Jack E. White described the film as a "cinematic lynching of the truth". He wrote, "It is bad enough that most Americans know next to nothing about the true story of the civil rights movement. It would be even worse for them to embrace the fabrications in Mississippi Burning." Columnist Desson Howe of The Washington Post believed that the film "speeds down the complicated, painful path of civil rights in search of a good thriller. Surprisingly, it finds it". He felt the film was a "Hollywood-movie triumph that blacks could have used more of during – and since – that era." Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, lightly criticized Parker's direction, commenting that the film was "sordid fantasy" being "trained on the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, and the feast for the self-righteous that emerges has little to do with history, sociology, or even common sense." Rita Kempley of The Washington Post wrote, "... like the South African saga Cry Freedom, it views the black struggle from an all-white perspective. And there's something of the demon itself in that. It's the right story, but with the wrong heroes." Pauline Kael, writing for The New Yorker, praised the acting, but criticized the film's "garish forms of violence" and described it as "morally repugnant".
Vincent Canby of The New York Times praised the film's fictionalization of history, writing in his review, "The film doesn't pretend to be about the civil-rights workers themselves. It's almost as if Mr. Parker and Mr. Gerolmo respected the victims, their ideals and their fate too much to reinvent them through the use of fiction." In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert surmised, "We knew the outcome of this case when we walked into the theater. What we may have forgotten, or never known, is exactly what kinds of currents were in the air in 1964." On the syndicated television program Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, Ebert and his colleague Gene Siskel gave the film a "two thumbs up" rating. Siskel, writing for the Chicago Tribune, praised Hackman and Dafoe's "subtle" performances but felt that McDormand was "most effective as the film's moral conscience".
Variety magazine praised the performances, writing, "Dafoe gives a disciplined and noteworthy portrayal of Ward ... But it's Hackman who steals the picture as Anderson ... Glowing performance of Frances McDormand as the deputy's wife who's drawn to Hackman is an asset both to his role and the picture." Sheila Benson, in her review for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, "Hackman's mastery at suggesting an infinite number of layers beneath a wry, self-deprecating surface reaches a peak here, but McDormand soars right with him. And since she is the film's sole voice of morality, it's right that she is so memorable."
Following its release, Mississippi Burning became embroiled in controversy over its fictionalization of events; it was heavily criticized by African-American activists who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the families of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., boycotted the film, stating, "How long will we have to wait before Hollywood finds the courage and the integrity to tell the stories of some of the many thousands of black men, women and children who put their lives on the line for equality?" Myrlie Evers-Williams, the wife of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, said of the film, "It was unfortunate that it was so narrow in scope that it did not show one black role model that today's youth who look at the movie could remember." Benjamin Hooks, the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), stated that the film, in its fictionalization of historical events, "reeks with dishonesty, deception and fraud" and portrays African Americans as "cowed, submissive and blank-faced".
Carolyn Goodman, mother of Andrew Goodman, and Ben Chaney, Jr., the younger brother of James Chaney, expressed that they were both "disturbed" by the film. Goodman described Mississippi Burning as "a film that used the deaths of the boys as a means of solving the murders and the FBI being heroes." Chaney stated, "... the image that younger people got (from the film) about the times, about Mississippi itself and about the people who participated in the movement being passive, was pretty negative and it didn't reflect the truth." Stephen Schwerner, brother of Michael Schwerner, stated that Mississippi Burning was a "terribly dishonest and very racist" film that "distorts the realities of 1964".
On a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (January 16, 1989) episode of ABC's late-night news program Nightline, Julian Bond, a social activist and leader in the Civil Rights Movement, nicknamed the film "Rambo Meets the Klan" and criticized its depiction of the FBI: "People are going to have a mistaken idea about that time ... It's just wrong. These guys were tapping our telephones, not looking into the murders of [Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner]." Filmmaker Spike Lee criticized the film for its lack of central African-American characters; he felt it was among several other films that used a white savior narrative to exploit blacks in favor of depicting whites as heroes. When asked about the film at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, Lee responded, "Hated it. They should have had the guts to have at least one central black character."
In response to these criticisms, Parker defended the film, stating that it was "fiction in the same way that Platoon and Apocalypse Now are fictions of the Vietnam War. But the important thing is the heart of the truth, the spirit ... I defend the right to change it in order to reach an audience who knows nothing about the realities and certainly don't watch PBS documentaries."
On February 21, 1989, former Neshoba County sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey filed a lawsuit against Orion Pictures, claiming defamation and invasion of privacy. The lawsuit, filed at a United States district court in Meridian, Mississippi, asked for $8 million in damages. Rainey, who was the county sheriff at the time of the 1964 murders, alleged that the filmmakers of Mississippi Burning had portrayed him in an unfavorable light with the fictional character of Sheriff Ray Stuckey (Gailard Sartain). "Everybody all over the South knows the one they have playing the sheriff in that movie is referring to me," he stated. "What they said happened and what they did to me certainly wasn't right and something ought to be done about it." Rainey's lawsuit was unsuccessful; he dropped the suit after Orion's team of lawyers threatened to prove that the film was based on fact, and that Rainey was indeed suspected in the 1964 murders.
Mississippi Burning received various awards and nominations in categories ranging from recognition of the film itself to its writing, direction, editing, sound and cinematography, to the performances of Gene Hackman and Frances McDormand. It was named one of the "Top 10 Films of 1988" by the National Board of Review. The organization also awarded the film top honors at the 60th National Board of Review Awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress.
In January 1989, the film received four Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama (Hackman), though it failed to any win of the awards at the 46th Golden Globe Awards. In February 1989, Mississippi Burning was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor; its closest rivals were Rain Man leading with eight nominations, and Dangerous Liaisons, which also received seven nominations. On March 29, 1989, at the 61st Academy Awards, the film won only one of the seven awards for which it was nominated: Best Cinematography. At the 43rd British Academy Film Awards, the film received five nominations, ultimately winning for Best Sound, Best Cinematography and Best Editing. In 2006, the film was nominated by the American Film Institute for its 100 Years...100 Cheers list.