Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: Mississippi Burning (1988)

It's been a while but I'm back to reopen the Oscar Film Journal!

Today's subject is the 1988 historical crime thriller Mississippi Burning, directed by Alan Parker and starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as a pair of FBI agents sent to the deep south to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers in 1964.  Met by the racist local law enforcement with scorn and a stubborn refusal to cooperate, the two agents find different ways to navigate this hostile, ignorant environment.  Dafoe's character is a youthful star agent who sticks strictly to the book, appalled by this toxic, violent culture but concerned above all with seeing justice done according to the letter of the law, while Hackman's former sheriff is more pragmatic and experienced, using a finessed approach to deal with the friendly locals and intimidation for the obvious suspects and their enablers.

Based loosely on a real 1964 murder case, the film takes some dramatic liberties, and despite numerous award nominations (including a Best Picture Oscar nod), was criticized for reducing the black characters to background and focusing only on the white characters.  While this is a valid critique - one could make a compelling argument that this is yet another "white savior" movie - Mississippi Burning succeeds prodigiously as a crime thriller that pulls no punches in showing us the reprehensible, racist underbelly that existed in the 1960s south.  This is a brutally honest look at a society so beaten down by failure and ignorance its authority figures exploited the widespread self-loathing of poor whites to further their own bigoted agenda.  From the town's Mayor (played by R. Lee Ermy with a false brashness betraying deep feelings of guilt) to the loathsome Sheriff Ray Stuckey and his insecure deputy Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif), to Stephen Tobolowsky as a local businessman turned would-be demagogue/Klan leader, each of these disgusting characters and their abuses of power still ring disturbingly true in 2022.  Whatever the film's shortcomings in terms of representation, I've no doubt its heart was in the right place.
Hackman and Dafoe are both very effective as the agents, Dafoe is clinical and at times naive, thinking his by-the-book approach can still produce results in a place where the rules of decency and integrity often don't apply.  Hackman alternates between charming and frightening (two qualities he'd display again as the villain in Unforgiven), earning the trust of Deputy Pell's downtrodden wife (Frances McDormand in a touching, understated performance) with his down-home appeal, but switching to blunt-force ruthlessness in trying to get Pell himself to crack.  Their clash of styles keeps the police procedural aspect of the film tense and riveting, and as the story plays out their approach changes from rules-driven to means-to-an-end.  

Interspersed with the scenes focused on cracking the case are horribly upsetting episodes of racist violence, as the various Klan members attack and intimidate members of the black community, sometimes for the mere offense of being seen talking to the feds.  We see houses and churches set on fire, children assaulted, men beaten and hanged.  For its time this film must've been the 1988 equivalent of 12 Years a Slave, in its harrowingly candid depiction of racism.  Parker set out to make a film that would force the uninitiated to confront America's reprehensible past and learn from our transgressions, yet another respect in which Mississippi Burning remains relevant today.  If the FBI agents are indeed painted as heroes, as the film's critics asserted, at least they're written self-aware enough to know that silence and inaction in the face of such inhumanity makes villains of us all.  Like I said, I believe the film's heart was in the right place. 

As a work of cinema that excels according to its own terms and intent, I give Mississippi Burning **** out of ****.

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