Published on September 17th, 2015 | by Michael0
Mississippi Burning – Blu Ray Review
Alan Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning attempts to tell the tale of the murder of three Civil Rights activists in Jessup County Mississippi in 1964, and the resultant FBI investigation into the killings, as well as the Klan activity in the region. The film won great critical acclaim upon its release, earning six Oscar nominations (and winning for Best Cinematography) but also received some criticism for playing fast and loose with the facts, it being one of those tricky films which is heavily based on real events while not pretending to be strictly true to reality.
The film stars Willem Defoe as Agent Alan Ward, a young, idealistic FBI man determined to find the killers and fix the South while he is at it. Quite how he made it all the way to Agent under the leadership of the notoriously racist J Edgar Hoover I have no idea. Ward is paired with Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman), an irascible older investigator, much more cynical and apparently far less sympathetic than his partner. The two form a good double act throughout the film, with Ward’s sense of justice driving the investigation and the more wily Anderson helping ground his partner. In one particularly harrowing scene, Ward approaches a black local in a segregated café in full view of everyone. The man refuses to speak to him, but is beaten by the Klan anyway. Anderson, rather than blaming the society that allows this sort of thing to happen, thinks the incident is Ward’s fault, because of his naiveté in talking to the man in the first place.
The stars are joined by a stellar supporting cast, most of whom play southern yokel types. Frances McDormand, Michael Rooker, Stephen Tobolowsky and Robert’s favourite Brad Dourif all feature, and there’s the pleasant surprise of seeing Tobin Bell, aka Jigsaw, as an FBI agent. R Lee Ermey, fresh from his iconic turn as the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket the year before, plays the town’s beleaguered Mayor. As the film progresses, the FBI agents are made to feel that it is they, not the KKK, that have kicked the hornet’s nest in Jessup’s County and are causing more problems than they’re solving. They are met with resistance not just by the white supremacists but by the black locals who are becoming targets of the Klan and from black Civil Rights leaders, who believe the FBI aren’t doing enough. But Ward and Anderson won’t be cowed, instead they dig in and bring the fight to the Klan, using some guerrilla tactics that I suspect are not fully FBI approved. Threats of castration and fake lynchings help rattle the locals up until something shakes loose. For me, these sequences are the highlight of the film because it offers some violent, almost wish-fulfilment like catharsis after all the awful things the Jessup County natives had done.
The Blu Ray comes with a director’s commentary, as well as three separate interviews with Defoe, Parker and writer Chris Gerolmo. Defoe’s interview casts some light on his performance; despite his love of the overall script, he found his character of Ward a little flat and uninteresting and was happy in many ways to play second fiddle to the slightly larger character played by Hackman. Indeed, the finished product is one of those films where the lead is a calm presence allowing those around them to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Defoe also recalls that Hackman was suspicious of the English Parker, wondering what a foreigner could know about US Civil Rights. Indeed, there is precious little in Parker’s career that suggested he could pull off a film of this sort – it’s hardly Bugsy Malone or Fame is it? However, against all odds, I think Parker did an excellent job with a very difficult subject matter. Though the film was far removed in time from the events it portrayed, there is actually a bigger gap between the film and now. The film was made 24 years after the murders occurred, but it has now been 27 years since the film was released, meaning the film occupies a sort of No Man’s Land halfway between the period and the present and ends up reflecting the politics of the 80s rather than the 60s or ourselves. Parker, in his interview, notes the difficulty of making a political film within the Hollywood system and says that his rewrites of the script were deemed to political by the studio but perhaps not political enough for politicians and journalists. He also reveals that while Defoe was his own first choice for Ward, Gene Hackman was suggested by the studio (Parker agreed with their instincts). Parker’s interview is quite insightful and very generous, clocking in at 20 minutes.
The interview with Chris Gerolmo is also interesting, he characterises the fictionalisation of the story as his attempt to avoid paying royalties to the real perpetrators by changing all the names, while also admitting to creating Frances McDormand’s character entirely to add romantic interest to the films. The role would arguably launch McDormand’s career and of course she went on to win a Best Actress Oscar for Fargo nine years later. Gerolmo also addresses one of the main controversies surrounding the film; that it is a film about the Civil Rights movement in the American South that is nevertheless about white people. Gerolmo’s response is that the film is really about a criminal case and the subsequent battle between the FBI and the Klan, with the FBI only marginally less all white than their counterpart. He makes a good point, but undermines his point slightly with repeated references to the importance of the white people who joined in with the Civil Rights movement, as if he is attempting to create a ‘White Saviour’ narrative within the movement’s history, because God knows we don’t have enough of those in fiction already.
Overall, Mississippi Burning is a good, verging on great film that tackles a very difficult subject with a great deal of style, even if the focus may be a little off. The word ‘powerful’ is thrown around a lot by the interviewees but the film seems very aware of itself in how ‘powerful’ and ‘worthy’ it is. That said, it is an entertaining watch and does invoke sympathy for the people struggling in the American South at the time, even if it is far from perfect. The interviews add some nice context to proceedings and also help, to a degree, in separating the fact from the fiction.