Film Score: Trevor Jones Cinematography: Peter Biziou
Starring: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand & Brad Dourif
Mississippi Burning can be a difficult film to judge, as there are a couple of distinct ways of looking at it. On the one hand it is a powerful historical drama in which the national legal establishment finally takes matters into their own hands to aid in the process of changing the segregated South by resorting to the very measures employed by the Klan and other hate groups. The result is a revenge film in which racist whites get what’s coming to them and go to jail. But my favorite film analyst, Frederick Barton, takes a very different view of the film. To him the film is a travesty that besmirches the memory of the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi at the hands of local law enforcement. By resorting to the same fear tactics as the Klan, the FBI agents lower themselves and eliminate the moral authority they had going in. Furthermore, he believes that by making the audience unwitting accomplices in the lust for revenge, it brings out and celebrates our baser natures at the expense of our American virtues. Finally, the pathetic jail sentences--mostly under ten years for murder--were not worth the degradation the protagonists voluntarily assumed and is a further slap in the face to the entire civil rights movement. The review is contained in his novel With Extreme Prejudice, and is well worth seeking out.
The film begins with stark images of racial segregation, separate water fountains and a burning church. Three civil rights workers, two white and one black, are stopped while driving down the road in Mississippi in 1964. Then they are taken into the woods and shot. A few days later Northern FBI agent Willem Dafoe, and his good ole boy partner Gene Hackman who is from Mississippi, look into the disappearance of the men and are met with nothing but denials and resistance from the townspeople and the police, beginning with sheriff Gailard Sartain and his deputy Brad Dourif. While Dafoe charges headlong into the investigation Hackman urges caution, and his warning is not unwarranted. When Dafoe begins questioning blacks their churches are burned, and when he continues their houses are burned. Redneck Michael Rooker is the worst of the bunch, but the town leaders like mayor R. Lee Emery and head Klansman Stephen Tobolowsky are able to use him and his friends to do their dirty work. While Dafoe refuses to see his responsibility for the scorched earth behind him, Hackman sees another way in.
Dourif is married to Frances McDormand and she clearly doesn’t like her husband very much. Hackman uses his Southern charm and appeals not only to her vanity but to her sense of right and wrong and eventually gets vital information that they need to not only find the murdered men, but to identify the whites responsible for the murders. As Barton points out, the opening section with Dafoe and Hackman begins with a joke, and the four eyes that can’t see in Mississippi are really those of glasses-wearing Dafoe whose investigational techniques are a disaster in a part of the country he knows nothing about. Hackman’s guidance, at first from afar, distancing himself from Dafoe, eventually becomes necessary in the same way that Sean Connery mentors Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. And when Dafoe finally relents, in a sense telling Hackman to do it his way, for Barton the film loses all credibility. Sure, it feels good to see the rednecks get some of their own medicine, but the system is rigged in their favor so that even after a trial their punishment comes nowhere close to justice for the despicable acts they perpetrated on the helpless victims of their systematic disenfranchisement.
Nevertheless, the film remains a powerful one, and the visceral nature of the retribution remains no less desirable for our guilt at desiring it. For me, however, the true nature of the film falls somewhere in between the two extremes. The meager prison sentences that the killers are given is indicative of the tremendous journey still left to travel, even today, in dealing with this dark legacy. Gene Hackman gives one of his finest performances as an FBI agent who at first seems sympathetic with his Southern past, but is eventually revealed to be more disgusted with his heritage than those from the North who have vowed to fight it. Willem Dafoe is great in support, but Barton’s thesis really hits home when he’s able to overcome his own revulsion at Hackman’s tactics and starts digging the results. Frances McDormand gives a terrific performance in an early role, and one of her non-Coen Brothers films. Brad Dourif, on the other hand, shows yet again why it was such a tragedy that his career never lived up to its early promise of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards that year but only won for best cinematography, as Rain Man came away the big winner. While Mississippi Burning is a moderately controversial film it is still a popular one with viewers, but will depend on the individual viewer as to how they take it.