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Mississippi Burning

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Mississippi Burning

Starring: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe
Director: Alan Parker
Rated: R
RunTime: 101 Minutes
Release Date: December 1988
Genres: Drama, Suspense

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

Americans like to think about their nation as the best possible embodiment of noble democratic ideals like liberty and equality and shining example for other, less fortunate peoples. But for the most of its relatively short existence USA was as far from those ideals as some totalitarian regimes. At least you would get that impression if you look at American history from the perspective of blacks, especially those who remember times when they were institutionally barred from exercising their most basic human and civil rights. Struggle to erase that shameful spot from the face of American democracy was anything but easy and many areas of USA witnessed violence, bigotry and hate usually associated with seemingly less enlightened places like Northern Ireland, Rwanda or former Yugoslavia. One of the films that captures the atmosphere of fear and violence in southern parts of USA during those times is MISSISSIPPI BURNING, 1988 thriller directed by Alan Parker.

Plot of the film is loosely based on the real events that took place in state of Mississippi in summer of 1964. Three civil rights activists - two whites and one black - took part in a campaign to educate black population about their voting rights and encourage them to exercise them, thus threatening all-white racist power establishment. One night all three of them are murdered by group of local racists. Few days later, FBI sends two agents to investigate their disappearance. The lead investigator is young, idealistic Alan Ward (played by Willem Dafoe) and he wants to solve the case by employing methods from FBI manuals. But the conventional criminal investigation, even when aided by dozens of other agents or hundred of Navy reservists doesn't yield any significant results. The main reason why they can't find the bodies or evidence is in the wall of silence created by local population - whites are inimical towards FBI, while the blacks are intimidated by KKK. Ward's partner Rupert Anderson (played by Gene Hackman) grew up in Mississippi and knows the local ways, so he suggest use of unconventional and sometimes downright illegal methods in order to solve the case. Suspecting that the local sheriff Ray Stucky (played by Gaillard Sartain) had something to do with the murder, he finds a weak spot in local hairdresser Mrs. Pell (played by Frances MacDormand), who provided crucial alibi for her husband, Stucky's deputy Pell (played by Brad Dourif).

MISSISSIPPI BURNING is good example how the same film can be seen differently by different people. While director Alan Parker probably thought of his film as anti-racist as possible, there were people who criticised film for being crypto-racist. Their main argument was in Parker's decision to portray the brutal reality of 1960s South from the perspective of two white characters. As a result, black Americans are portrayed as nothing more than helpless victims who can't fight for their rights by themselves and must rely on noble whites to rescue them from their misery. Parker also had to endure additional criticism for straying from the real history. However, his screenwriter Chris Gerolmo should be forgiven for not being faithful to the facts of the case - real life seldom provides material that would work as great drama without some creative intervention. So, here we have the usual cliche of all police films - two detectives who are different in temperament and methods. Gerolmo also allows some of 1980s mentality to influence his script - it is implied that the best way to fight evil is to beat it in its own game and use violent methods without any concern for civil rights and due process. The semi-romantic subplot between Anderson and Mrs. Pell also seems somewhat contrived, although Gene Hackman and Frances MacDormand have excellent chemistry together.

However, despite the problems with authenticity and arguably too patronising view on 1960s blacks, MISSISSIPPI BURNING is still very powerful film. Parker knows how to manipulate emotions of the audience. This is especially so in the numerous but always heart-wrenching scenes of blacks being victims of beatings, torching and lynching. Those scenes would leave a lasting impression on the audience, especially among those who start thinking about this horror being part of everyday life in pre-1960s South. Those scenes also explain why blacks in this film happen to be nothing more than helpless victims and why this sad reality enjoys tacit support of some whites who might not like it, but feel that they haven't got any other choice but to support culture of semi-institutional racial violence. After being subjected to these scenes, the audience is going to cheer for our protagonists when they finally give the racist monsters the taste of their own medicine. Parker, apart from using the talents of Gene Hackman in one of his best roles and whole variety of great American character actors (Brad Dourif is especially effective as pathetic little racist who embraced KKK as a way to hide his own weakness), also showed great talent for authentic locations. Unfortunately, the atmosphere of the film is somewhat compromised by not very inspired original music by Trevor Jones.

MISSISSIPPI BURNING is nevertheless a very good film that, despite its shortcomings, should be viewed as a warning and constant reminder how some truths that we think as self-evident are far from being shared by large amount of people. And effect of this film is even stronger when we remember that the this slice of American near past is nothing but the tragic present and even more disturbing future in many other areas of the world.

Copyright 2002 Dragan Antulov

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