Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe star in Mississippi Burning, a well-intentioned and largely successful civil-rights-era thriller. Using the real-life 1964 disappearance of three civil rights workers as its inspiration, the film tells the story of two FBI men (Hackman and Dafoe, entertainingly called "Hoover Boys" by the locals) who come in to try to solve the crime. Hackman is a former small-town Mississippi sheriff himself, while Dafoe is a by-the-numbers young hotshot. (Yes, there is some tension between the two.) The movie has an interesting fatalism, as all the FBI's... best efforts simply incite more and more violence--the film's message, perhaps inadvertently, seems to be that vigilantism is the only real way to get things done. The brilliant Frances McDormand, here early in her career, is not given enough to do but still does it well enough to have racked up an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. (Hackman also received a nomination for Best Actor, and the film won an Academy Award for Cinematography). Mississippi Burning is ultimately unsatisfying--it is, after all, the story of white men coming in to rescue poor blacks--but it is beautifully shot and very watchable, featuring a terrific cast playing at the top of their games. --Ali Davis, Amazon.com [show more]
Mississippi Burning deals with a number of key subjects, some of them controversial, and is a fictional film partly based on real events. Perhaps for this reason it took some twenty-four years for the story to finally be told after the initial inciting incident. Firstly, a crime is committed and the film becomes a battle for civil rights, which in turn highlights a brutal racism that poisons the film's environment, leading to racial politics and what that means to the white people depicted in the film. The other key area of the film is a wonderfully told procedural investigation that takes place and most surprising of all, a hint at love in an absolutely beautiful and subtle way that touched a nerve. What you ultimately have is a compelling overview of the battle between white liberals and white supremacists struggling to assert control over the black population in the south, be it a positive or a negative one.
This masterpiece is loosely based on the actual murders of three civil rights workers in the segregated southern state of Mississippi in 1964. The film opens with a chilling scene showing the three activists who are driving at dusk, tailed by several cars and then stopped by the white mob in those vehicles clearly connected to the Ku Klux Klan before being murdered. This opening premise is the only major scene that is as close to the truth as the film apparently gets. After the three activists, two of them white, Jewish young men and one black, are reported missing, two FBI agents, Anderson played by the incomparable and intuitive acting giant that is Gene Hackman in probably his most accomplished role, and Ward played by the well versed Willem Dafoe, are sent to investigate the disappearance in a place called Jessup County, a rural backwater part of the Mississippi.
The two agents tackle the investigation in completely different but honourable ways; Agent Ward is a young, white, idealistic, liberal and intellectual type northerner with a politically correct demeanour who takes a direct approach whilst the older Agent Anderson, a rough-around-the-edges type man who was a former sheriff in a Mississippi county not so dissimilar to Jessup, takes more subtle, low profile and at times back-to-basics measures because he has an experienced understanding of the intricacies of race relations in the south. He literally tries to sniff out any clues by the behaviour of the locals. Regardless of their approach, both men are met with the same resistance from the local sheriff's office because it appears to have a close affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan and as a result of these opposing forces, there is total silence from the black community for fear of violent retribution if they even speak to the agents. Ward escalates the investigation by laying siege on the county with an army of Washington-based FBI agents and even the National Guard, setting up a makeshift HQ in a huge local movie theatre to intensify the manhunt. This only leads to a breakdown in relations between the sheriff's office that is in effect a representation of the state and the FBI who represent the federal government, as was true to the historical context of the film. Relations between Anderson and Ward also become strained by the latter's actions. Local officials including the sheriff's office complain that the whole case is a publicity stunt, dreamed up by Northern liberals and outside agitators.
The bulk of the film is focused on this relationship and the two agents' methods as well as the hostility felt by the white Mississippians as outsiders come into town to seemingly stir things up by supporting the black community's interests, and how many of the white extremists go about putting fear into the minority population. The irony in some of the race politics in the film is that the only real reason the FBI from the north get involved and the national media with them is because two of the missing activists happen to be whites from the north itself.
There is a wonderful line early on in the film that gives some indication of what the agents are truly up against when Anderson and Ward are talking about how they can get someone to give useful information that could help solve the case. Anderson tells Ward "Down here we have a saying...rattlesnakes don't commit suicide," meaning that the conspirators aren't going to just given themselves up. Sheriff Stuckey leads the intimidation and his deputy, Pell, played by the brilliant Brad Dourif is a shifty-eyed, weasel-like cop with an alibi for the time that the three men disappeared. The alibi comes from his long-suffering wife Mrs Pell, acted by the great Frances McDormand, who has clearly put up with a great deal from her husband. You get the feeling pretty early on that Pell holds the link between the officialdom and the white mob that perpetrated the savage acts. He comes across as a really horrid and cowardly racist, typical of the Klan membership who hid behind hoods and guns. Anderson appears to immediately single out Mrs Pell as the key to the case but ultimately, you know that the only way to bring the whole house of cards crashing down is if the two agents can come together and employ both their tactics, albeit if some of them become underhand and a little crude.
There are no great villains and sadistic torturers in this film, only a group of banal little racists with a vicious streak and that's more than enough to keep an entire town to tow the line. It starts at the top with the town's bigoted mayor played to perfection by R. Lee Ermey, clearly not a Klan member but certainly a responsible figurehead and therefore being part and parcel of allowing the extremists to be able to function by sticking up for what he thinks are the righteous old values, even though they are completely and utterly wrong. He epitomises the same officialdom that stubbornly keeps quiet and doesn't actually look truthfully into what is happening to their community. Then there's the local law courts who are just as bigoted as the rest of the community and as such, cannot bring about any justice.
Though the evil is understated, it looms large over the murky swamp that is much of the Mississippi and the atmosphere is so palpable you feel the kind of currents that were in the air at the time. The white supremacists and all those who either aided them or stood by in silence create a reign of terror that is unprecedented in most other crime films.
One of the strongest reasons why the Mississippi Burning is so effective on many levels is the period sets that have been remarkably recreated making it feel so real. Some locations are obviously authentic too and give the impression that they've stood still in time whilst the rest of the world has moved on. The set dressing is something to marvel at. You could just about believe you'd be hard pressed to find any inaccuracies. There's a dusty atmosphere in the air of so many shots that creates an atmosphere that diffuses the light. This gives the effect that the movie is actually living in the town. You get an acute sense of time and place and this is the lifeblood of the film. You literally feel as if you know where it's safe to go and where it's best to avoid. You feel like you know most of the people intimately because everything's so detailed. This goes for the characters and extras in the film as well, who are the other major strength of this film. Director Alan Parker used non-professional actors from the state so there's no illusion. There's a documentary-like feel to the scenes at times. Much of these using the non-professional cast are improvised so the bigotries and unpleasantries that are so shockingly and ridiculously primitive feel so real you can actually believe it's all still happening. It gives you a sense of just how shameful a chapter this was in American history. You always get a sense in the film that Mississippi is playing catch up with the rest of America - even at the time of the film being made! There's so little to like about the townsfolk which may seem a somewhat one dimensional but maybe it's this way because the characters were that ignorant as a community, silent to the atrocities that took place and quite against the black community that there's no other defence for them. Clearly the general population hid behind the white supremacists in the state and you can see that in the film through these improvised scenes with the locals. Although the Klan has almost been crushed in current America, the internal feelings of many white people remains hostile to the black community.
The overall main cast of the film is perfect. Defoe gives an understated and simmering performance as Ward. Gene Hackman stands head and shoulders above everyone else in this film. He's an instinctive actor who seems as though he can look at a scene and cut through to what is actually necessary to make the point that's required with extraordinary economy. He's the quintessential movie actor. Everything he does is so effortless. He cuts to the truth and heart of any scene. He brings great depth and dimension to his character. We gather a great insight into his character. At first you might easily mistake Hackman's Anderson for having sympathy with the Klan as many FBI agents of his age did - he has a magnificent monologue that's worth watching alone which gives you a sense of where he gets his ideals of justice and equality from. He too is the product of a bigoted father so full of hate he couldn't see what was killing him. Hackman switches temper dramatically. One minute he's smiling or just patiently biding his time and the next he's squeezing down on his prey. Hackman's great genius is to pare scenes down to the bare minimum and yet still make the strongest possible point in a scene. There's a brilliant scene where a civil rights march takes place and Hackman has to cross the melee of the crowd. He simply pushes down the threatening night-stick held by one of the guarding police officers that says everything about what's so wrong with the aggressive nature of men confronting other men.
Hackman saves some of his best acting for when he's playing off the almost equal brilliance of Frances McDormand. You get a sense that there is a sexual chemistry between their characters but not quite. She's clearly a lonely woman with a good conscience though subservient to her chauvinistic and racist husband. Hackman's Anderson is very duplicitous in that you feel he really likes her and yet he's using her. But there is a genuine feeling for her from him without any need to make it all explicit that is really worth watching in itself. It's such a pure relationship you feel the compassion in it. You're left on that knife-edge of is he using her or does he care for her that makes for intriguing viewing.
R. Lee Emery as the mayor delivers dialogue like he's written it for himself. His line to Anderson "You're getting so far up my nose I'm beginning to feel your boots on my chin" is just out of this world. I've spared a thought for Michael Rooker who is so aggressive as an actor he is very believable as a heavy. Brad Dourif another great actor who doesn't appear to say much but conveys a great deal of cowardice or menace just by his facial expression or gestures.
There's a nice piece of refrain music throughout Mississippi Burning which intensifies the scenes and gives them an eerie tension full of suspense with regards to how long things can hold on for without a major breakthrough. Then there's the gospel music that works so well as an underscore to aid with the imagery of the beautiful blacks carrying the burden of 300 years of suffering and oppression in their eyes.
Director Alan Parker appears to have actually burned a number of buildings, mainly churches in the film that makes you feel that the state really is on fire. This is very powerful symbolism for depicting a society that can't live in harmony with its different ethnic groups. Churches in particular, to give some historical context, were easy targets for the Klan because these places of worship acted as a focal point for the entire black community so were very important to them and the Klan members were as mentioned earlier very cowardly so this was effective on many levels.
Yes the film is not without its controversies from both a black perspective and a white one. The film is a fiction but uses significant factual details as its basis which are then changed to suit the story that you end up rewriting history, whereby the liberal whites came to the rescue of the black man in America to emancipate him. So what you end up with is a film that shows the black fight for equality as extremely passive and lacking any significant role in changing America for the betterment of all human beings. It would need someone of great courage to attempt this but you would end up with a far more truthful account of the civil rights struggle through this most wonderful story. You get a sense that the film got made by Hollywood because its two heroes were white but this notion is not simply reserved at the movie business but is a reflection of the entire American society in general. This course of action in choosing two such protagonists would probably not have come from the director but from the studios. It's almost some sort of contrition on the part of white liberal America to try to make amends for something it was clearly responsible for as a society but all along, it only ever wanted to reduce blame to some members of its community, thus softening the blow on an extremely dark period in history. There are two exceptions to the passive role by blacks in their struggle for freedom. A young black boy has some worthy lines demanding his rights though this could be seen as a cop-out because being a boy he's less threatening to a white audience. Then there's an FBI agent who is willing to go beyond the confines of the law to get information that he wants from potential conspirators; essentially he's a bit of a monster. This clearly echoes what Rudyard Kipling once said about conquered people as the black community clearly are in this film, whereby he described them as "half-devil and half-child."
Nonetheless I feel the film has good intentions overall and at least opens up a debate around racism. You realise how recently black people were denied basic rights we take for granted today through no fault of their own because of the way the film is made. You can really feel the racism in the air with all your senses more than any other film I've ever seen and the entertainment it brings to these extremists' lives as a replacement for their sense of worthlessness. Every bit of character development is subsequently followed by a dynamic action that reveals the gritty nature of the entire county. The essence of the film and its time is best summed up by Anderson's line when he is asked if he likes baseball by the sheriff to which he responds, "Yeah I do, you know it's the only time when a black man can wave a stick at a white man.and not start a riot."
What a fantastic film.
Great actor - Gene hackman - man of the film.
William Defoe is great too.
The accents are great, every thing about it gets you into the story line.
Typical FBI going in guys a blazing, whilst gene Hackman thinks about it.
Great great film.
highly recommend it.
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Three young civil rights activists are murdered in cold blood by the Ku Klux Klan and lie buried in a Mississippi swamp. Two FBI agents are on the killers' trail. A trail which threatens to tear a community of hatred and oppression to pieces, and blow America apart. Based on a true story from the 1960's.