Review: Mississippi Burning

Set in 1964, straight-arrow FBI agent Willem Dafoe gets paired up with fellow agent and former Mississippi sheriff Gene Hackman to head down to Jessup, Mississippi where three civil rights activists are missing, presumed dead. Something is sick in Jessup, the town is steeped in either racism or ignorance or both, including the sheriff (Gailard Sartain), his deputy (Brad Dourif), and even the mayor (R. Lee Ermey). Hackman, who grew up in the South has a bit more of a handle on how to ingratiate himself with the small town folk than the rather unsubtle Dafoe, but even he struggles to get anyone in town to talk. Hackman does strike up a bit of a relationship with the deputy’s relatively timid wife (Frances McDormand), though. Stephen Tobolowsky plays a Klansman, Park Overall is a local hairdresser, Michael Rooker and Pruitt Taylor Vince play thugs, Tobin Bell (his first significant role) and Kevin Dunn (his film debut) are FBI agents, and Darius McCrary is a local African-American boy.

I’ll never understand the backlash this 1988 Alan Parker (“Midnight Express”, “Birdy”, “Angel Heart”) real-life inspired examination of racial hatred in America’s South in the mid-60s. It wasn’t completely roasted or anything, in fact a lot of people liked it very much. The Academy in particular, nominated it for Best Picture among other categories. However, people like Spike Lee complained that the film lacked pro-active African-American central characters. I guess he felt the film was yet another ‘white saviour’ story with no black ‘heroes’. If that’s a viewpoint you share, you too are missing the point just like Spike Lee. Honestly, if the ‘white saviour’ deal and the fact that Parker is only loosely inspired by fact here are the only complaints you have with this film, I believe you’re missing out on a very, very good film. Just as “Philadelphia” was not trying to preach to the choir on homosexuality and AIDS, this film is clearly aimed at getting through to people who might not necessarily have an interest in a bleak history lesson/true story told exclusively from the African-American POV. And it’s the subject/issue that is of most importance, surely (I should note that I first saw the film when we were shown it in high school in the early to mid-90s). I’m whiter than a ghost, so I understand that this probably isn’t even an issue I’m entirely qualified to speak on. I get that. Therefore I’ll try to keep the majority of my remaining comments on topics I’m a bit more learned on, such as the film’s merits as a piece of cinematic storytelling (I make no promises, though!). I just think the film has gotten a raw deal in some quarters over the years and wanted to get that off my chest first.

The film grabs you from its very first scene, which is wonderfully shot in darkness by an Oscar-winning Peter Biziou (“Life of Brian”, “Time Bandits”). You’re immediately unsettled due to that, the fact that the cops are in on the abhorrent goings on, and the thuggish menace inherent in Michael Rooker’s gravel-voice as the epitome of bully-boy cracker hatred. He’s all mean, all the time and this is an immediately bad situation for the poor victims of the crime (Fictionalised, but inspired by a real-life case). Outside of this scene, Parker (in his best-ever film) also does give you a fine sense of people and place/time here. As decorative as the scenery may occasionally be, this is not a pretty picture being painted. This is the absolute worst of humanity on show for the most part. It’s a horrifying and shameful period in American history, but racism isn’t confined to one country. I’m angry that human beings are actually capable of this abhorrent shit.

The other thing that grabs you early on here is the truly brilliant performance by an Oscar-nominated Gene Hackman, one of his best-ever turns. There’s an ever-so slight touch of “In the Heat of the Night” here, but Hackman’s character is probably a lot more evolved than Rod Steiger’s in that film. Although from the same general area as the racist crackers in the film, Hackman’s FBI man (a former sheriff) has neither respect nor fear for these hateful morons. Early on we hear him mockingly singing a KKK song, he’s clearly contemptuous of these yokels. It’s easily one of my favourite Hackman performances, mixing humour, tenderness, anger, indignation, and authority. He gets a particularly great speech about his own father that certainly doesn’t excuse the behaviour of racists, but certainly goes some way to understanding where some of the hatred comes from. There’s also nothing funnier than Hackman holding Rooker’s balls and rendering him completely useless and docile. Willem Dafoe gets the rather thankless task of playing the straight-arrow younger FBI man who doesn’t understand the townsfolk, nor Hackman’s methods in dealing with them. The book does nothing for Dafoe in this town, whilst Hackman’s good ‘ol boy charm is at least able to get his foot in the door from time to time. Dafoe’s heart is in the right place, but his methods actually get people killed, and piss his partner off to boot. Dafoe plays the rather humourless part well, he’s a very versatile actor.

Although Hackman and the story/themes are the primary standouts here, the supporting cast is crackerjack. I’ve already praised Rooker, and the other guys playing the various racist characters are all exceptional. Gailard Sartain is probably best remembered for “Ernest Goes to Camp” and the like, but here he gives an effective turn as the town’s sheriff. He’s a good ‘ol boy racist who has zero interest in helping the FBI. This guy and Brad Dourif’s vile a-hole deputy are very much a big part of the problem in town. Dourif is well-cast as the smug little shit weasel of a deputy who thinks he’s pretty much untouchable. R. Lee Ermey is pitch-perfect casting as the town mayor, who is just as bigoted as the rest, but has an even greater power/stature than Sartain and Dourif, who serve under him. Pruitt Taylor Vince and his constantly darting eyes are spot-on for a character with less intestinal fortitude than his racist cronies. The most hissable villain in the film though, is Stephen Tobolowsky’s Klan elder. He couldn’t be more perfectly cast as a complete and total hate-filled slimeball. It’s a seemingly effortless performance that it’s so effortless for us to despise his character who, like all the other racists in town, is actually quite pathetic. This town is sick with bigotry and stupid hatred, it’s a disease spread from top to bottom. I’m not the biggest Frances McDormand fan, but as Dourif’s mousy, brow-beaten wife (one of the few prejudice-free characters in town) she’s perfectly fine. Also, for all the criticism of African-Americans not having large roles in this or meek roles, look at young Darius McCrary’s brave youngster as an example of how that line of thinking is bullshit. He and the other kid are anything but passive and pitiless. Another example? Frankie Faison’s preacher, who delivers sentiments that surely Spike Lee would’ve shared. Watch for that scene, it’s a powerful cameo. An even better cameo comes from Badja Djola as a man attempting to get information out of Ermey using very, very, painful and intimidating methods. That’s a cracker.

Although it doesn’t get talked about much these days, this is a powerful, well-made film on an important subject. Some criticised it for not sticking too much to the facts. Some people even dared to call it racist, which is a disgusting insult to victims of actual racism. Director Parker smartly realised that a fictional film version inspired by true events could reach more people than a dry documentary on the subject. I also don’t believe that telling the story from a white point of view in any way deserves scorn. It too would likely have brought in a wider audience. Scripted by Chris Gerolmo (“Miles From Home”, “Citizen X”), this is terrific filmmaking and a gripping, if ugly story. Hackman is brilliant, the supporting cast top-notch, the story irresistible, the message invaluable. One of the 10 best films of an admittedly excellent year for movies.

Rating: B+


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