Most of the films about racial injustice by white filmmakers have aged poorly, dethroned from the kingdom of accolades while the oppressed have reclaimed their narratives. The Oscars presents the best showcase for this war of authenticity, revealing the Academy to be stubbornly behind despite being throttled year after year with criticism. The feel-good Driving Miss Daisy won over Spike Lee’s painfully relevant Do the Right Thing. The facile and histrionic Crash stands as one of the most recent examples of poor judgement from the Academy. And this year’s award to Green Book over BlackKklansman and If Beale Street Could Talk illustrates the ongoing problem. Alan Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning, however, received far more scorn than those films, and never amounted to the pedestal (but it did, of course, receive a Best Picture nomination, among others).
A film “Based on a True Story”, that of the slaying of three civil rights activists in Neshoba County, Mississippi, which distanced itself from the actual victims and affected community, garbled facts, invented composite characters, and reframed Hoover’s FBI agents as liberal white saviors drew strong ire from both the families of the activists and civil rights leaders as prominent as Coretta Scott King. The true story of the investigation into the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner barely resembles the final vision conceived by Parker, who uses the case as a flimsy thread on which to pack a legal thriller steeped in the tension of a volatile and regressive Jim Crow town. Like a war reenactment, the action finds more truth in the theatrical and visceral than in the facts. As a downside, the plot frequently evolves into melodrama with little relevance to the important themes.
The best example of this would be the inclusion of Frances McDormand as the wife of racist Sheriff’s Deputy Pell (Brad Dourif). When agents Rupert Anderson and Alan Ward (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) arrive in town, they find her to be just about the only friendly white face willing to talk. Since merely speaking to a black resident seems to result in violence against that person, Anderson sees Mrs. Pell as the key to the case, sensing her empathy and dissatisfaction in her marriage will make her permeable enough to provide them with a promising lead. This plot came from thin air, of course, and stands as just another excuse to show white people Doing the Right Thing. Ironically, this strand received the most praise at the time of the release, as McDormand, Hackman, and Dafoe act circles around one another. Indeed, the technical merits are nearly the only thing saving this movie. In addition to performances, Alan Parker’s direction often transcends the milquetoast writing.
Mississippi Burning may be one of the few films to benefit (perhaps only slightly) from a reappraisal. While there exists practically no counterargument to the criticisms that the film warped the facts and contained only black extras with occasional speaking parts, not to mention the glorification of law enforcement, a slight reframing of perspective illuminates something potentially redemptive. Parker claims in print and in the commentary accompanying this release that the aim was to capture the general climate of the times rather than retread any particular historical moment. Indeed, many elements from the film come from archival footage, unrelated cases, fabrication for the purpose of plot, and the reduction of groups of people into single characters meant to represent the worldview of that group.
In this sense, the film recounts a hate crime inasmuch as Fargo recounts the story of a car salesman who arranged for his wife to be kidnapped. There may be grains of truth sprinkled in, but they’re secondary to the fiction, which intends to be more of an emotional exercise than an intellectual one. That it definitely is, although misleadingly. Despite being flawed, Mississippi Burning painstakingly recreates the time period in both surface detail and tone. The air cloudy with dust, Mississippi resides in a choking, stifling heat wave that burns even more remotely at night, condensed into glaring red neon signs at the detective’s motel and demonic car headlights searching for prey.
For some, the graphic nature of the racist beatdowns, attempted lynchings, and police-endorsed maiming may seem gratuitous, but compared to real accounts of racial violence from the time, the film actually shows restraint. Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, playing analogous characters to represent investigators of the Freedom Summer murders, act as guides through the Hell on Earth that enshrouds the Parker’s vision of Mississippi. Not many films so accurately and palpably construct such a lived in, authentic portrayal of an environment poisoned by hate, where half of the citizens live in fear and the other half revels in their suffering. It never lets the politics of the time come across as complacency or “just the way things were”, showing an oppressive, segregated society for what it was: a conspiracy of unapologetic sadism. | Nic Champion
This Blu-ray comes from a 4k transfer from the original negative. Alan Parker’s commentary is included, and certainly elevates the level of appreciation for the craft of the film, if not the intent.