Ah, the civil rights movement. If you appreciate strong acting, great cinematography and a story full of horrifically old-school attitudes leading to even more horrific acts of violence, than this is the film for you.
Sarcasm aside, any story set in the 1960s in Mississippi is surely going to involve the civil rights movement in some fashion and any movie about the civil rights movement will find it very difficult to communicate the seriousness of the time without recounting how violent it was. Mississippi Burning is the dramatization of real events that took place after three civil rights advocates were killed in Mississippi and the FBI was sent in to sort everything out. Spoiler alert: two of the three civil rights activists killed were white, one of the facts that director Alan Parker left unchanged when co-writing the script.
Whether it was due to the fact that two white New Yorkers were killed while advocating for the civil rights movement or not, the fact remains that at one time as many as 150 FBI officers were dispatched to Mississippi to help solve the case – I mean, if that’s not grounds for a movie, what is? The only thing that one should keep in mind while watching the film is that it has faced criticism over the years for two things: firstly, it’s depiction of the FBI officers who have to go to extreme lengths to solve the case, venturing far outside their boundaries to do so (though this was before Jack Bauer gleefully went outside the lines like a complete badass in 24 and everyone thought it was cool), and secondly for all the white people who seem so instrumental in ensuring that the civil rights movement was successful and that those who perpetrated violence may not have been brought to justice without these albino heroes. Such a thing almost seems like us white people are trying really hard to convince ourselves that we’re not all intense racists and we need a film like this to set that in stone, but I’d rather not get political here. Whatever the reasons for the white heroes in the film, I’m just saying that this should all be kept in mind while watching what really is a great film and why I chose to include it on my list of films to watch.
Let’s start with my man, Gene Hackman. Ever since Hoosiers, my first exposure to the great actor, this guy has pretty much been able to do whatever he’s wanted to do in my books. He starred alongside Will Smith in the once interesting Enemy of the State and carried that film along, was the bad guy in Superman and Superman II, I think, and then way back he did a few other sort of popular films, in one he overhears some guys talking in a hotel, another I think he’s in France…? Okay, come on, Hackman is one of the best of the last 40 years and you know it! He is fantastic as FBI agent Rupert Anderson, the more ‘dynamic’ of the two agents initially sent down to investigate. His performance is perfectly balanced by another pretty talented guy who has been around named Willem Dafoe, who plays his far more straight-laced partner Alan Ward, forced outside of his comfort zone when faced with this harrowing case. The two play perfectly off of each other, clearly coming from different backgrounds, approaching not only the case they have been assigned, but also the whole civil rights movement in general from rather different points of view. The supporting cast is a mixture of names and faces (a powerful Frances McDormand among them) that appear throughout strong films over the years, making the acting side of things pretty darn solid.
The cinematography in this film pretty much speaks for itself, it only won the Oscar (as we know, the Academy always gets it right). With repeated shots of burning cross, churches, and bodies, there is much imagery to play with considering the title of the film, but Parker and Peter Biziou (cinematographer) deserve massive credit for the way the story is told visually with some truly breathtaking shots that are always advancing the story. When you watch this film (during a second watch it would be even better as you’ll know where the film is taking you visually), watch for the use of long lenses to emulate the feeling of being watched that Anderson and Ward have while they’re in the town full of sympathizer-haters, those are among my favourite (the shots, not the haters).
To bring this to a close, Mississippi Burning is without question one of the most powerful films you will see about the civil rights movement. Is it slanted towards alleviating white guilt? Maybe. Does Selma, which re tell a more powerful story? For many reasons, yes it does by far. Does that subtract from the effectiveness of this film’s message? No, not for me. Parker’s aim was to bring an out of date tragedy to a contemporary late 80’s audience and I think he has achieved that in a powerful and artistic way (he talks about it more in this review/interview http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=940DE2DA1F30F937A35751C1A96E948260)
So kick back with some popcorn and whatever beverage you enjoy movies with, (I’m a tall glass of water guy myself) and watch Mississippi Burning.