MISSISSIPPI BURNING boils over with scorching images, simmering atmosphere and fire-breathing performances, and its heart is ablaze with searing outrage, all of which makes the fact-torching dramatic license it ignites such regrettable arson. Along with illuminating scars in recent American history with an atmosphere-evocative visual sense and adept casting, it carelessly dumped kerosene on still-open wounds by fictionalizing roles and events to such a degree that Civil Rights groups were outraged by the distortions.
Mississippi, 1964. Local bigots murder three young civil rights activists, two white (and Jewish), one black. The bodies are hidden. The area authorities dismiss the vanished guys as a missing persons issue, even a prank. The FBI sends a team to investigate. Deceptively folksy agent ‘Anderson’ (Gene Hackman) knows the region and its attitudes, while his buttoned-up superior ‘Ward’ (Willem Dafoe) has zeal to spare but lacks Anderson’s down-home savvy. When the rednecks rally and increase violent intimidation of the areas black citizens, the Bureau men decide it’s time to break rules, a few noses (and assorted protuberances).
Alan Parker’s direction lights the urgency fuse in his carefully picked actors and his detailed time & place milieu suggests an immediacy that’s painfully credible: the filming was done in a half dozen small towns in Mississippi and a couple next door in Alabama. Hackman has a showier role than Dafoe and is more convincing, plus he’s allowed the choicest interactions with the superb supporting cast.
“At seven years of age, if you’re told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it. You breathe it. You marry it.”
Frances McDormand’s budding career took a leap ahead with this film: she gets the most sympathetic role, as the prisoner-in-amber wife of one of the racist cops, her isolated decency utilized by Hackman/Anderson’s intuitive understanding of her situation and his attraction to her. The array of scoundrels are mercilessly represented by Brad Dourif (a sheriffs deputy, McDormand’s shitheel husband), Michael Rooker (hatred incarnate as the most brutal in the clavern), R.Lee Ermey (the fake-friendly mayor) and my favorite, the great, unsung Gailard Sartain (Southern fried perfection as the sheriff). The scenes of the viciousness unleashed on the black community at least get a bit of audience-cathartic payback when Gene memorably lays into Dourif and Rooker.
Peter Biziou’s sweat-redolent cinematography won an Oscar and nominations came down for Best Picture, Actor (Hackman), Supporting Actress (McDormand), Director, Film Editing and Sound. Revisiting time, place and hurt cost $15,000,000; doing so with such vibrancy summoned a public response of $34,604,000, 32nd place in ’88s roll call.
“What’s wrong with these people?”
Plenty, but what’s wrong with this picture is the script, written by Chris Gerolmo, then rewritten by Parker. The dialogue is fine, and there’s nothing untoward about using different names for those involved (most of the characters are based on real-life counterparts, or composites) and compressing time to cover dramatic license bets vis-à-vis strict adherence to fact: director Parker did so to chilling effect in Midnight Express. But the wholesale whitewash (the right word here) of the F.B.I.’s less-than-gallant service during the period is galling, to the historic record and to the experience of the African-Americans who had, as memory serves—SOMETHING—to do with that miserably necessary chapter. In the script, they’re essentially reduced to walk-on’s, there to be abused every so often so the storyline can then re-focus on the Hoover justice cavalry portrayed by the charismatic leads. It’s a gripping film, but unfortunately a good chunk of it is bogus. *
With Stephen Tobolowsky (as the main Klan crud), Kevin Dunn, Park Overall (love her!), Tobin Bell, Frankie Faison, Darius McCrary. 128 minutes.
* Relatives of the murdered trio were upset, and the NAACP was none too happy. The widows of Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers took issue, as did Julian Bond, who called it “Rambo Meets the Klan”, saying “People are going to have a mistaken idea about that time … It’s just wrong. These guys were tapping our telephones, not looking into the murders…”
Parker: …”the controversy got out of hand. It was impossible to turn on a TV without someone discussing the movie – or using the movie to trigger the debate … In the beginning it was rather nice to have your film talked about but suddenly the tide turned and although it did well at the box office, we were dogged by a lot of anger that the film generated”….”Our film cannot be the definitive film of the black civil rights struggle, our heroes were still white and, in truth, the film would probably have never been made if they weren’t. This is, perhaps, as much a sad reflection on present day society as it is on the film industry.”
Then again—deep breath—now that we’re chin-deep with both revitalized racism in the public square and reductive revisionism in how we’re supposed to personally, privately interpret books and movies, maybe before we go full baby-bathwater it might be worthwhile to consider Pablo Picasso’s observation: “Art is the lie that helps us see the truth.”