MISSISSIPPI BURNING. Directed by Alan Parker; written by Chris Gerolmo; produced by Frederick Zollo and Robert F. Colesbeery for Orion. Starring Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand and Brad Dourif. Rated R.
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Mississippi Burning is a cop buddy picture with an unusual twist—the crime being investigated is one that really took place. The movie has generated a lot of controversy, and not without reason. And it's well-made, full of compelling imagery and outstanding performances. The level of violence that pervades the movie, though, while not excessive considering the subject matter, will make even slightly squeamish viewers want to avoid it.
The story "fictionalizes" the FBI investigation into the disapperance of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. The two agents who begin the search are Ward (Dafoe) a young, idealistic "Kennedy man," and Anderson (Hackman) a veteran who comes from the south and knows much more about racism first-hand than his partner.
Hackman's character is the more interesting, and not just because he's at the top of his acting form here, able to flesh out the man with little seeming effort. Anderson looks and talks like the rednecks he's investigating, and it's easy at the beginning of the movie to suspect he's a closet bigot himself. But he is gradually allowed to show us how he really feels about the plight of the blacks, and the deliberate pace of this revelation makes the whole movie, as well as Anderson, that much more interesting.
Dafoe makes such a good hero that it's hard to believe he got his start in movies playing creepy villians with equal skill (in Streets of Fire and To Live and Die in L.A., for example). He's on a white horse again for much of Mississippi Burning, and Ward is believable both in his passion for justice and in his bewildered anger at the casual violence he witnesses.
Another performance that must be praised is that of McDormand. She projects the sadness, common decency and inner strength of her character so well, I'll be uery surprised if she isn't an Oscar front-runner.
What about all the controversy? The movie has been criticized for showing black people as passive victims. But this is 1964, remember, not 1968. People who have lived for generations in such oppressed circumstances, and with such constant fear of random violence, are bound to be somewhat passive. Eventually, they began to speak out, and they do in the movie, too, more towards the end.
A more serious problem is the confusion of fiction and fact. Mississippi Burning has the gritty, realistic look of a documentary, but the main plot line—Ward's and Anderson's relationship—is made up. This uncertainty about what really happened, (especially, I would think, in the minds of viewers too young to remember the news accounts of the murders) is disturbing.
February 8, 1989