“Hatred isn't something you're born with. It gets taught... 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.”
Alan Parker’s 1988 film which was nominated for seven Academy Awards is another reminder of what a great career Gene Hackman had, although this time he got to share the spotlight with a pair of other wonderful performances from Willem Dafoe and Frances McDormand. The fact that Mississippi Burning isn’t even considered one of Hackman’s top ten most popular films just proves how many great films he’s made over the span of five decades (he retired from acting in 2004). Since the film was loosely based on a real incident surrounding the disappearance of some civil rights workers in the south during the 60’s many people complained that the film wasn’t faithful to the story, but Parker never made such a claim and always said his film was a fictional tale of events that could’ve taken place during the time so I don’t see any need to complain about it. Some similarities can be found with the classic film directed by Norman Jewison, In the Heat of the Night, which handles a similar theme about racism. Films like this are important reminders of how dangerous humans can be when they let hate and racism govern their hearts. It is so easy at times to forget those dark moments in our history and act like they never happened, but once in a while we get films like Mississippi Burning that remind us of the horrors of humanity and the sacrifice people made to end them. These are films with important messages which also happen to be well made and count with a stellar cast. Its only Oscar win was for Peter Biziou’s wonderful cinematography, but there is so much more worth recommending about this classic from the 80’s.
The film introduces us to three civil rights workers as they are detained by a police vehicle while they were about to exit a small Mississippi town. The officers begin making all sorts of hateful remarks towards these men and violently shoot them for trying to stir up their quiet and organized segregated town. A few days later, two FBI agents show up in town looking for these disappeared citizens, who they fear have been murdered. Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) is in charge of the operation despite his young age. His partner, Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman), is more experienced and is not afraid to speak his mind about him as someone he believes to be well educated but lacking more field work. Ward likes to do things by the books, but Anderson who was a former Sheriff in a similar Mississippi town knows the mentality of these places and believes his methods won’t get them anywhere in a place like this. The Mayor (R. Lee Ermey) isn’t pleased with the agents visit because he believes his segregation methods work and that things are run differently here than in the south. The agents learn it quickly while they’re trying to collaborate with the local officers. Sheriff Ray Stuckey (Gaylord Sartain) is very protective of his boys, especially of Deputy Clinton (Brad Dourif) and officer Frank (Michael Rooker) who were the officers involved in the murder. It doesn’t take the agents too long to realize what happened, but they can’t find anyone in town who will speak to them since the victims have been threatened by the KKK. Every time someone seems to be interested in speaking up, they are immediately intimidated by the gang through violent acts. Ward’s tactics don’t seem to have an effect, but Anderson may have found the perfect ally in Mrs. Pell (Frances McDormand), the Deputy’s wife who rejects his actions.
The script handles the civil rights case with care and avoids falling into melodramatic territory by remaining gripping and suspenseful. There are plenty of thrills along the way and some violent scenes that are actually less horrifying than the hateful things these men say. It’s true that the civil right theme is told through a white’s man point of view, but I think it still remains compelling and well intentioned. In the end it becomes entirely a revenge action film, but it’s handled in a convincing and realistic way. Hackman, Dafoe, and McDormand are in the center of the movie and they all deliver gripping performances playing off each other extremely well. Brad Dourif and Michael Rooker are given the stereotypical racist characters who are very easy to hate. Rooker seems to be playing the same character from The Walking Dead series only this time he actually acts upon his remarks more than simply being a loud mouth. Hackman and Dafoe are on the same side despite having very different approaches and that difference helps build the tension and relationships in the film. Parker’s sensitive direction works in a film with such a controversial subject matter that could be easily manipulated. Mississippi Burning is a classic that shouldn’t be missed by fans of Gene Hackman and his impressive career.