It was interesting to finally revisit 1988’s “Mississippi Burning” after so many years especially in light of the recent wave of fresh new filmmakers offering their own points of view on racism and the historical stain it has left on America’s social fabric. It was a movie that faced more than its share of criticisms, some thoughtful and others unfair.
The film is based on a true story about three young civil rights workers who went missing in 1964 Mississippi. The title comes from “MIBURN”, the code name given to the missing persons investigation by the FBI after the workers’ burnt-out car was discovered. It would become one of the signature cases in the long and painful road towards racial justice.
Many of the criticisms were unfortunate especially considering the type of movie “Mississippi Burning” is. There were complaints, even boycotts aimed at the film’s inaccuracies, its choice of story perspective, and its lack of a central black character. And then there was the unwarranted white savior accusation, as if the situation in that small Mississippi town had been dramatically changed for the better by the end of the film. This was never meant to be a documentary. It’s clearly a fictionalization intended as a suspenseful police drama but with the guts to hold up a mirror to the segregated south.
Director Alan Parker starts his film with an impeccably shot opening sequence. At dusk three young men are driving down a country road in Jessup County, Mississippi. Within seconds three vehicles are barreling down on them. The foreboding beats of Trevor Jones’ score and Peter Biziou’s tension-soaked cinematography lets us know that something bad is about to happen.
The boys go missing and the FBI sends Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman), a brash but seasoned g-man with southern connections of his own and Agent Alan Ward (Willem Defoe), a by-the-numbers bureau guy fresh out of the Justice Department. Their approaches to the investigation are drastically different. Anderson wants to melt into the community, getting information by mixing with the locals at the barbershop or the Main Street cafe. Ward wants to use every government resource at his disposal. That includes over 100 FBI agents who converge on the small Mississippi town much to the chagrin of Sheriff Stuckey (Gailard Sartain). He and his slimeball Deputy Pell (Brad Dourif) put up every wall of jurisdiction they can and work hard to convince the townsfolk that the feds don’t belong there.
Anderson and Ward find themselves in a boiling hotbed of deeply ingrained racism. With the KKK running free and a seemingly complicit local law enforcement, finding clues to the missing boys’ whereabouts proves difficult. This touches on one of most heart-shattering elements to the story which involves the black community and their unwillingness to share information with the feds.
This reveals a terrible circle of injustice. Anderson and Ward can’t tighten the screws on racist local suspects unless the black folks will talk to them. The black folks won’t talk to them for fear of violent retaliation from the racist locals. Anyone in the black community who speaks out ends up hurt or killed. Their families are terrorized and their homes burnt to the ground. As Anderson tells a discouraged Ward, “They have to live here long after we’re gone.” It’s a revealing truth that the film handles well.
As a crime thriller “Mississippi Burning” maintains a simmering level of suspense. Interestingly the suspense lies more in how things play out rather than what the outcome will be. The longer the movie goes the worse things get. Hope dwindles and patience begins to wear thin. Several key players factor in most notably Deputy Pell’s wife (played by an excellent Frances McDormand who received her first Oscar nomination). We also get a young Michael Rucker playing a hate-fueled yokel with a disgustingly long leash.
But it all comes back to the two leads. DaFoe works at the perfect temperature for his character, a principled man with a sharp blend of smarts and naïveté. But it’s Hackman who steals the show reminding us of just how good of an actor he is. Effortlessly natural at every turn, convincingly fiery when needed, and with loads subtle flourishes that make his performance stand out.
VERDICT 4.5 STARS