[box cover]

Mississippi Burning

MGM Home Entertainment

Starring Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, and Frances McDormand

Written by Chris Gerolmo
Directed by Alan Parker

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"The opening credits scene pretty much sums up everything."

— Alan Parker

*          *          *

It's generally not a good sign if your two hour-plus film is summed up neatly within the first minute. Nevertheless, director Alan Parker kicks off his audio commentary on MGM's Mississippi Burning DVD with this astute observation, apparently unaware of how well he's also summed up all of the problems with his mis-acclaimed film.

Parker's oblivious remark aside, few have bothered to point out this particular film's shortcomings. Mississippi Burning is one of those films that will always be appreciated more than it deserves. It collected a respectable share of awards and nominations upon its release in 1988, and still, many years later, it's regarded with solemn approval. It seems to have secured a place as an Important Film, one whose name is greeted with serious nods and meaningful inhales. It's earned its posterity, however, simply because no one wants to criticize it out loud. Pointing out the flaws in a film so stridently against racism and segregation somehow is interpreted as approving of racism and segregation, as opposed to simply being against poor films. Certainly its crimes are small in perspective, but taken strictly as work of art, Mississippi Burning is the kind of photoplay that is better suited to the pedantic and simplistic environs of a junior high history class than it is to be exalted as belonging alongside other classics of the medium.

The opening sequence in question is a still shot of two drinking fountains, one for 'whites' and the other for 'coloreds'. A burly white man drinks from his fountain and walks off without a moment's thought. A young black boy drinks from the other, and moves on, haunted. Parker thus sets the tone for a marathon of dull broad strokes. Yes, everything that follows has been summed up with great efficiency. What Parker tells us with this first image is that we are watching a lesson film, and not only that, but one drawn with the obvious, uncomplicated imagery of well-produced political commercials. This approach might have worked if Parker or screenwriter Chris Gerolmo had anything interesting to say about the 1960s battle for civil rights in the deep south, but their point of view is strictly remedial: Segregation happened — and, yes, it was bad.

Inspired by the true story of two white civil rights workers and a young black man murdered by corrupt law enforcement in 1964, Mississippi Burning is a clichéd fiction about a federal investigation into a similar crime. In charge of the case is serious, by-the-book FBI agent Ward (Willem Dafoe), who, believe it or not, does not get along with his good-ol'-boy partner Anderson (Gene Hackman). Practically the first things they say to each other are, "You don't like me, do you?" and "Let's get this straight!" Most of the film consists of them bickering about whether to approach the investigation by Ward's strict methods or by Anderson's loose, unorthodox tactics. After five minutes with these two cardboard heroes, Parker actually builds a strong argument for the segregation of antagonistic partner characters.

Ward is profoundly stirred by the civil rights cause (and Dafoe plays the part with a few degrees more sanctimony than he did Jesus a year earlier) and his solution is to throw hundreds of federal agents at the uncooperative and surly local citizenry, inflaming an already volatile situation. Meanwhile, Anderson — himself a former Mississippi small-town sheriff — understands the culture of their surroundings and tries a mix of southern charm and backwoods ball-busting to crack the case. Guess which approach works.

Parker almost stumbles upon something interesting: the idea that the civil rights war had little to do with civil rights and was really a battle for power between two small groups of white men: the federal government and the previously unimpeded ruling class of Jim Crow law enforcement, who naturally balk at being deposed after 100 years of undisturbed power. But instead of examining this provocative idea, or any other that might arise, we're subjected to scene after scene of KKK-affiliated southerners gritting their teeth, rolling their eyes, sweating profusely, and beating down blacks, followed by scenes of Dafoe looking anguished and frustrated and arguing with Hackman. In between are sporadic interview-style clips of puffy-faced, toothless southerners suggesting that the murdered civil rights workers "git whut thems dusserved."

Lost in all this, predictably, is the lives of the black people subject to the Jim Crow environment. They're present in the film, but only to get beat on, murdered, cast long-suffering gazes, and sing soulful gospel songs. Congratulations, Mr. Parker, in your film about civil rights you've managed to reduce blacks to a few one-dimensional stereotypes. I guess this is O.K., because Dafoe gives a speech at the end about how we're all guilty, and earlier Frances McDormand, as the wife of a KKK official, gives a speech in which she explains racism in less than 30 seconds. Class dismissed.

All that said, Mississippi Burning is made a palatable viewing experience mostly thanks to the dependable talents of Gene Hackman, who always manages to infuse the thinnest of characters with humor, complexity, and humanity. He manages to craft inner-conflict and expose the gray areas in a script of strict blacks and whites. Dafoe, on the other hand, is frustrating, manic-depressively changing motivations without any arc. Applause must be accorded to the considerable photographic talents of Peter Biziou, whose cinematography makes this look like a much better film. Also with Brad Dourif and Michael Rooker as teeth-gnashing racists.

Part of MGM's Contemporary Classics collection, MGM's DVD release of Mississippi Burning is well-presented in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and audio in Dolby 2.0 Surround. Includes a dour commentary by Parker.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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