Powerful, infuriating, heartbreaking; just a few words to describe Alan Parker’s brilliant Mississippi Burning starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as FBI agents investigating the disappearance of civil rights activists in America’s deep south.
There are few starker images of segregation in the modern world than separate water fountains. From something so simple one can glean so much. It is a sad and sickening indictment of attitudes at any time in history, where someone can be treated with such scorn simply for being a different colour. I have no intention of grandstanding on the subject of racism, I am neither well informed nor able to give a reasoned argument. Besides which that is not what film reviews should be about. They should give a subjective opinion on the entertainment value of a movie. Whether that film concerns superheroes and big hammers, or blatant racism and murders in a wheat field. Our objective should remain the same. To be impartial.
If Mississippi Burning fails to make you angry then we won’t get along. Back in the late Eighties when Alan Parker made this, few had dared to investigate the topic. Richard Attenborough had made Cry Freedom, Spielberg had waded in with The Color Purple, but Amistad and 12 Years A Slave were decades away. Any examination of slavery and the misdemeanours which came along with it was deemed contentious. Not that people were unaware, they just didn’t want reminding. What Parker, Hackman, Dafoe and others did was put a bomb under people and stand back.
Set in the Sixties, Burning concerned itself with a missing person case. From the get go Parker loads the dice by playing his opening scene with slow, deliberate, decisive intent. There is a real life story edge to proceedings which is never lost sight of. Similar in feel to Angel Heart which he made with Mickey Rourke and De Niro, Burning has a cloying heat emanating from within.
This tightly woven character study contains so many great performances from confirmed masters, that you are spoilt for choice. It reminds you how good Gene Hackman really was, while Dafoe, Dourif and McDormand amongst others add a sense of reality. To be honest there is no need to sell any element of this film, because we know that these things and worse really happened. Burning crosses, ritual hangings and white supremacy still tarnish areas of America today. There is no justification for it beyond generational ignorance born of tradition, which is outmoded, outdated and embarrassing. If Mississippi Burning has a purpose today it remains a historical one. Certain films are difficult to watch for a reason. Their message leaves a bad taste which some might call guilt by association. It documents a misalignment in attitudes. Small towns policed by men with guns and an unshakeable belief in their right to rule. Ignorance as they say is bliss. But in this reviewer’s opinion there is nothing more dangerous.
That they shot on location in Mississippi surrounded by these attitudes, only serves to give the film more credence. Using old stock footage from Klan rallies as well as months of research, Parker helped shape a screenplay with few soft edges. Using the FBI as a counterpoint to this southern mentality, Parker carves a trench in the sand. Whether that is between the differing work ethics of Hackman and Dafoe, or political reasoning behind their involvement in the first place.
There are too many layers to cover in one review on this film. Mississippi Burning lacks a sheen which makes it better. There is no gloss or Hollywood hyperbole. Parker is gritty and it suits just fine. Sadly even in these enlightened times few films are brave enough to face racism full on. Actors like Hackman are in short supply, while entertainment and the application of cinema to issues of concern are less likely to be funded. Aside from the hours of discussion and pages to be written on the subject, one thing is blatantly obvious. If you are serious about your cinema owning this is mandatory.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: Alan Parker
Written by: Chris Gerolmo
Starring: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe
Country: USA / IMDB
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Mississippi Burning was recently released on Blu-ray and features additional features such as an audio commentary from the director and interviews with Alan Parker, actor Willem Dafoe, and writer Chris Gerolmo.