Mississippi Burning (1988)
Mississippi Burning captures the American South of the 1960s and its turbulent race relations by telling a story that, while technically fictional, is inspired by actual events that took place. It succeeds by all at once being gripping, emotional, and contemplative. Despite being made in 1988 and taking place in 1964, the film holds up to this day quite well.
The story begins with the murder of three young civil rights activists--two of them white and one of them black--in a small town in Mississippi. Two FBI agents are soon assigned to this as a missing persons case; these are, as they formally refer one another, Mr. Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Mr. Ward (Willem Dafoe). Ward is the younger of the two, and also the agent in charge of the case. The local law enforcement and the town in general is hesitant to accept these big shots from up north, and their views don't much change when Ward decides they need a lot more men, and that this is more than just a simple missing persons case.
The Ku Klux Klan factors prominently into the case, but Anderson and Ward don't have much means for proving that they had any involvement, let alone which members, if any, contributed to the crime. It doesn't help much that nobody in town seems to want to help out--white or black. The FBI men are a little surprised to see such segregation and bigotry still taking place, but trying to explain it to some of the people in town is like trying to sell a newspaper to a dog. Ward's by-the-book style of gathering information isn't exactly producing the results he had hoped, and as a last resort, he decides to allow Anderson to use his more unconventional ways to get some answers out of some suspects.
The film is filled with a veritable who's who of That Guys, actors whose faces you recognize, but whose names you don't always know: R. Lee Ermey, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brad Dourif, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Michael Rooker, and Kevin Dunn. All of these men deliver consistently solid supporting work, as does the always-perfect Frances McDormand as the benevolent wife of a Klansman deputy.
Mississippi Burning, while a compelling thriller, drives for something deeper-seeded than a whodunit mystery. In fact, it pretty much gives away the mystery in the first scene. Instead, we get a study on race relations, and director Alan Parker explores the motivations and mentality of white people who persecute others based solely on the color of their skin. For some reason, these people have it burned into their minds that color of skin dictates social rank and intelligence, when nothing could be further from the truth. It would be nice to say that this sort of thinking has been abolished in our country, but that's still not the case. It has died down considerably, but it is not completely gone, and that's a real shame.
May 1, 2005