One of my friends often mentions the last places he wants to visit in US, which are usually the ones reported on the media for infuriating cases of blatant racism. I felt same about Mississippi when I revisited Alan Parker’s “Mississippi Burning”, an inherently flawed but undeniably compelling in its vivid and incendiary depiction of the Southern racism during the 1960s. While there are a number of problematic aspects which definitely need to be mentioned and then criticized, the movie is still a first-rate crime thriller which grips and shakes us hard as skillfully thrusting into that violent and dangerous period, and its many unforgettable moments resonate with an inconvenient fact that racism and its long, deplorable history are still alive and well in the American society yet even in 2020.
The story is told mainly through the viewpoint of two FBI agents sent to a fictional county in Mississippi for investigating the disappearance of three young civil rights activists in June 1964. Although their names are never mentioned throughout the film and they are merely named as “Goatee”, “Passenger”, and “Black Passenger” in the end credits, these activists in the film are clearly based on three real-life civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, whose sudden disappearance in Mississippi did lead to an extensive search and investigation led by FBI at that time.
When Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) arrive in the county, they instantly sense that they are not so welcomed by many of local white people in the town, and they are not surprised at all when they do not get much cooperation from the local sheriff and his deputies. The sheriff, who is your average sleazy Southern dude, insists that he and his deputies do not know anything, and he even suggests that the case is nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by the activists and their liberal associates who dare to meddle with the way of life in the South.
The activists came to the county for helping local black people on voter registration, and it goes without saying that they were targeted by a local racist group right from the very beginning, but nobody in the county wants to tell anything to Anderson and Ward. While many local white people are uncooperative and hostile to say the least, most of local black people are all the more silent because even a few seconds with the agents can lead to getting themselves lynched or murdered. This is a small town after all, and whatever they might say to the agents can be quickly spread around in the county.
As a guy who was once the sheriff of another small county of Mississippi, Anderson knows better, so he advises Ward not to cause too much disruption, but Ward sticks to the procedures while pushing harder in their ongoing investigation. More agents are brought into the town, and, after the car belonging to the missing activists is finally found somewhere outside the county, he brings in far more people for the following search all over the county.
Of course, the tension surrounding the county is consequently escalated day by day, as reflected by one heart-pounding montage sequence alternating between the search process and a series of hate crimes happening here and there in the county. Thanks to the dexterous editing by Gerald Hambling and the pulsating electronic score by Trevor Jones, we becomes more unnerved by the accumulating conflict in the story, and cinematographer Peter Biziou, who deservedly won an Oscar for his work here in this film, gives us strikingly fiery moments dripping with the raging evil of racism on the screen. As shown from many of his notable films such as “Midnight Express” (1978), “Pink Floyd – The Wall” (1982), “Birdy” (1984), and “Angel Heart” (1987), Parker is a master filmmaker who knows how to engross us with mood and details, and many locations appearing in the film are packed with that distinctive Southern atmosphere and texture while occasionally making us uneasy for the menace and hostility lurking behind their shabby façade.
In the meantime, the screenplay by Chris Gerolmo gives some insight into the source of the racial hatred which often shook up the American society during that period. As reflected by a personal story told by Anderson at one point, many of racist white folks in the South including his own father let themselves blinded and driven by hate just because for looking away from their miserable life status, and that aspect is exemplified well by many racist bullies shown in the film. No matter how much they get away with their vicious hate crimes, they remain to be nothing but pathetic hateful losers, and a bunch of notable characters actors including Brad Dourif, Stephen Tobolowsky, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Michael Rooker did an effective job of embodying that loathsome aspect. While clearly recognizing the banality of evil observed from their racist characters, the movie often throws to us the gut-chilling moments of violence as required, and I assure you that these moments will make whatever you saw from “The Help” (2011) and “Green Book” (2018) look like Sunday afternoon picnic.
However, despite its good intentions, the movie lacks the perspectives from its black characters, who are, except one outspoken boy who helps Ward and Anderson a bit, more or less than background details unless they are victimized by those racist villains in the film. Sure, the movie shows how much they are afraid or angry about what is happening to them, but it does not delve that deep into their anger, pain, and frustration which certainly have existed for more than 100 years, and it also seriously marginalizes the significant efforts of many civil right activists during that era as mostly focusing on its FBI agent heroes. As a matter of fact, J. Edgar Hoover and his men were more interested in the private life of Martin Luther King Jr. than finding those missing activists, and it is undeniable that Gerolmo’s screenplay fictionalizes its real-life story too much as following genre conventions for maximum dramatic effects.
Nevertheless, the story itself, which can be regarded as your typical buddy cop tale, is captivating because of the strong personalities of its two main characters. Respectively taking very different approaches to their investigation, Anderson and Ward frequently clash with each other, but they eventually come to find a common ground between them as recognizing each other’s determination toward justice, and we accordingly gets moments of dramatic catharsis as they come to go all the way together for their investigation. Although their resulting tactics are morally and ethically questionable, they are fairly acceptable at least in the genre territory of the movie, and the electrifying dynamics between the two lead performers firmly hold the story to the very end. While Gene Hackman effortlessly swings back and forth between his character’s laid-back amiability and unforgivingly righteous wrath, Willem Dafoe somehow succeeds in burying himself completely into his character’s unflappable clean-cut appearance, and he effectively functions as a solid ground for his co-star’s showier acting.
The movie was also one of the early career highpoints for France McDormand, who is poignant as Mrs. Pell, a local hairdresser who may give Anderson a tip on the whereabouts of the missing activists. Unlike her racist husband and many other people around her, she apparently feels wrong about the ongoing injustice in her town, and Anderson deliberately tries to appeal to her conscience step by step, but then he hesitates as he and she come to feel something mutual between them. While facing the hard consequence from her subsequent choice, she comes to reveal a surprising amount of will and strength behind her seemingly timid attitude, and McDormand and Hackman have a quietly touching scene where their characters indirectly recognize how much they are changed by the unexpected emotional development between them.
In spite of its inherent weak aspects including its glaring deficiency in African American perspective, “Mississippi Burning” is a powerful visual presentation of racial hatred and its virulent terror, and it has recurred to me more than once during last decade. When I heard about those racist riots which happened right after the re-election of President Barak Obama in late 2012, I could not help but think of those burning images in the film, and they have been disturbingly amplified in my mind during next several years for the good reasons both I and you know too well. Racism is indeed not through with the American society at all, and things look gloomy and despairing at present, but, despite my growing skepticism, I hope that there is still a chance for the American society and its people to overcome.