1964. WHEN AMERICA WAS AT WAR WITH ITSELF.
There are many heinous cases that must have compelled federal authorities to finally back comprehensive civil-rights legislation that specifically targeted the South. One of the worst is the disappearance of three civil-rights workers, two white and one black, in Mississippi in 1964 who were later found murdered. Local authorities wouldn’t do much about the case, but as the FBI soon learned that was because they were in on it – the murders were planned and executed by men belonging to the local Ku Klux Klan, sheriff’s office and another police department. Heavily debated at the time of its release, this film stays close to the facts, but is far from a documentary.
Three civil-rights workers are missing
In 1964, FBI agents Rupert Anderson and Alan Ward (Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe) arrive in Jessup County, Mississippi to find out what happened to three civil-rights workers gone missing. They immediately face a sheriff’s office that is either outright hostile or completely uninterested in the case. Anderson and Ward differ on many issues, including how to approach this case. The former is older, was born in the South and knows how and when to talk to the locals without offending them; the latter is a young, by-the-book Washington type who expects answers without understanding the consequences of asking people at the wrong time or wrong place.
After a while, Anderson finds one person who might provide the key to the case – the woman (Frances McDormand) who happens to be married to one of the sheriff’s deputies (Brad Dourif)…
Redneck cops are good villains
Complaints about how the script differs from the facts are irrelevant. But writer Chis Gerolmo does deserve some criticism for his heavy-handed portrayal of the Mississippi town. Throughout the film, we see those responsible for the murders (including the sheriff and the mayor) act like completely one-dimensional racist thugs. There is little effort on Gerolmo’s behalf to try to understand why the toxic ideology represented by these vile men was so widely supported in the South. These days when we see movies about World War II Nazis, attempts are often made to explain how so many could fall for that political brand, but movies about racism in the South in the 1960s and earlier rarely delve deeply into trying to learn more about that mindset. It’s a shame, especially when the filmmakers are as ambitious as in this case, but redneck cops sure make for good villains – and everything else in the movie is dynamite.
As the agents keep investigating, and tension builds in the community, Trevor Jones’s electronic music score helps us sit on the edge of our seats. There’s also tremendous emotion in the way the African-American locals are portrayed; the film was accused of making them look inactive and in need of being rescued by the white man, but some of the film’s most stirring moments are dominated by them.
Hackman and Dafoe are also very enjoyable as the odd-couple agents and McDormand terrific as the wife who should have left town a long time ago, but refuses to call any other place home.
Director Alan Parker shows a genuine interest in the Mississippi locations where he shot the film – there’s this feeling throughout, symbolized by Hackman, that it wouldn’t be such an awful place if only you got rid of the racist pigs in charge of the police, courts and state government. Easy peasy, right? A lot has changed since 1964, but as I’m writing this review America is once again debating endemic police violence against blacks. It’s clear that there’s still work to be done.
Mississippi Burning 1988-U.S. 125 min. Color. Produced by Robert F. Colesberry, Frederick Zollo. Directed by Alan Parker. Screenplay: Chris Gerolmo. Cinematography: Peter Biziou. Music: Trevor Jones. Editing: Gerry Hambling. Cast: Gene Hackman (Rupert Anderson), Willem Dafoe (Alan Ward), Frances McDormand (Mrs. Pell), Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, Gailard Sartain… Stephen Tobolowsky, Michael Rooker.
Trivia: The real-life murder story was also filmed as a TV movie, Murder in Mississippi (1990). According to Tobolowsky, some of the extras were actual Klan members.
Oscar: Best Cinematography. BAFTA: Best Cinematography, Editing, Sound. Berlin: Best Actor (Hackman).
Quote: “Have you any idea what it’s like to live with all this? People look at us and only see bigots and racists. Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation what’s said in the Bible… Genesis 9, verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.” (McDormand to Hackman)
Last word: “Chris Gerolmo had written two drafts of the script before I became involved and we began working together on a new draft closer to the film I wanted to make. This was a less than fruitful exercise as Chris and I, locked away in an Orion office in Century City, didn’t really gel as a writing team. For a week or so we ploughed through his original script which I was very keen to rework and tear apart, influenced by the actual story, the political milieu and the piles of research we had uncovered. In particular, Chris also didn’t take to my robust criticisms of his dialogue and, indeed, began to write down every rude remark I made on a yellow legal pad – eventually complaining about me to the powers that be. Zollo flew in from New York and when I arrived first thing in the morning for the day’s work, the two of them were already in the offce waiting for me. Zollo said that I had been ‘rather rude’ to Chris, and so maybe it would be better that I should leave the project. Not entirely surprised by their ultimatum, I suggested that maybe the two of them should leave the project instead.” (Parker, AlanParker.com)