Mississippi Burning (1988)

Directed by Alan Parker

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It’s 1964, and two FBI detectives descend on a small town in Mississippi in search of three boys who have gone missing.  We know these boys (two white, one black) have been murdered by the Klu Klux Klan, so the detective’s journey has little to do with the search itself but a lot to do with the people who stand in their way.

The three murdered boys were out of towners, northern “beatniks” who came to encourage black citizens to register to vote.  Their deaths, to the locals, were warranted, and they cry foul that the only reason the FBI gives a sh*t is because the boys were from out of town.

The locals of this small town consider themselves a bubble away from the rest of the country.  While there are riots in Chicago and Oakland, there is peace right here.  We the audience, with the knowledge of hindsight and a movie featuring multiple points of view, know this is far from true.  The KKK has the power to intimidate and even kill anyone who dares mess with them.  No one speaks up for fear of retribution.

The two main FBI agents are young and old, working together but occasionally at each other’s throats because of how they choose to do things.  One is named Anderson (Gene Hackman) and the other is Ward (Willem Dafoe).  They have a sort of buddy cop dynamic which adds some levity to a story that is quite self-serious.

Now, Mississippi Burning is about an important topic, but does that mean the movie is good?  My first response was to see everything that’s wrong with the movie.  The characters are predictable (too young/too old jokes), there is a lack of gender balance, and it’s another story about issues of race told from a white guy’s perspective.

But the film is earnest, and the subject matter is serious and at times gut wrenching.  You might scoff at certain aspects of the story, but then other moments are striking and pure. This is a story about persecution that’s glossed up with A-list actors, a synth-laden 80’s score, and an unwarranted romance (in tone) between Gene Hackman and Frances McDormand.  It mostly gets in the way of the film’s message, but at times the heart of the story cuts to the forefront.

These are moments that often don’t involve any white characters.  The clearest example involves the sudden lynching of one man at the hands of the KKK while they burn down his farm.  It’s disturbing and stoic, forcing you to really watch and hear what’s happening.  There is nothing to distract you from the grotesque nature of the crime and the intent, no Gene Hackman or romance, only a type of violence that is hard to stomach.

The movie is about such horror, grappling both with the reality of the crime and the ease with which the perpetrators could get away.  They were terrorists filled with hate whose insularity allowed such contempt to run rampant.

What’s particularly noteworthy right now is how present this film feels.  Though a little less overt, the same hatred still exists, the same divide between those in small town American and the “beatniks” from the coast.  The sentiment expressed by many locals in newsreel interviews feels as though it’s been expressed many times today.  As my roommate noted, the people who spoke with an unfiltered hatred of the black population even seemed more temperate than the same demographic today.

So Mississippi Burning is an important story that occasionally transcends the trappings of the time in which it was made.  The music is a little heavy-handed sometimes, the romance is groan-worthy, and the shining white knight is a bit reductive.  When you move past those, as the movie eventually does, the true horror is unflinching and effective.

Up Next: Pickup on South Street (1953), Beginners (2010), Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

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