Hackman's Got the Balls
The greatest compliment I can give "Mississippi Burning" is that it is entertaining but also hard hitting and brutally honest in its tale of racism in 60s Mississippi. It means that this story which I believe is partly based on real life draws you into a case of murder and keeps you transfixed as to how two diverse FBI agents will bring justice. Yet at the same time it delivers the uncomfortable racism which once was rife, making you feel sick at how things once were and how there were those who flaunted their racism. In many ways "Mississippi Burning" is a hard movie to do justice to in words because it deals with a subject which even now is a difficult one and does so quite magnificently.
FBI Agents Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe - Streets of Fire) and Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman - Bat*21) are sent down to a Mississippi town to investigate what happen to 3 civil rights workers who have gone missing. It's a difficult task in a town full of racism where the coloured residents are afraid to speak because the local law and mayor are part of the racist culture. And to make things more difficult is that Ward and Anderson have very different styles with Ward being a man of procedure whilst Anderson having once been a small town Sheriff is more accustomed to the culture and the sensitive way the investigation needs to be approached.
Now I don't know enough about the true story on which it is said that "Mississippi Burning" is based upon so can't say whether it distorted facts in creating a fictional version. What I can say is that writer Chris Gerolmo and director Alan Parker have crafted a movie which not only highlights the situation at the time but also delivers entertainment. That almost sounds wrong to say a movie which is all about racist injustice and murder is entertaining but the way the FBI's investigation progresses with Ward calling in more and more people whilst Anderson quietly talks to those he can get information from is entertaining. And the way the drama unfolds till eventually things come to a head is just as entertaining because we are drawn into this investigation especially as from what we see the repercussions for talking to the FBI is serious.
But at the same time "Mississippi Burning" is more than just entertainment as it is an effective dramatization of what life must have been like back then. In an early scene where Ward attempts to talk to a coloured boy in a diner and then soon after the boy is beaten by three white men for just talking, not saying anything important makes you feel uneasy and sick. And this continues through out as we see the situation in the town become increasingly heated till it becomes a war zone with the racist faction going to work, burning buildings, lynching anyone and making life hell for anyone who could point the finger of blame. It's not just violence because we also see an unjust legal system and how those who are racist feel protected by number, being openly racist but deceptive enough not to admit to anything. It means that whilst "Mississippi Burning" is entertaining it is also unsettling and honestly real in its portrayal of the era.
Whilst the writing and direction are a big part of why "Mississippi Burning" is so good it is also the performances through out and not just from Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as Anderson and Ward. Brad Dourif as the repulsive and slimy Deputy Pell is a seriously unsettling character, cocky in the way he feels untouchable and a real figure of hate but then so is Michael Rooker as the violent Frank Bailey. I could go on because the cast through out put in terrific performances with what must have been hard characters to play.
What this all boils down to is that "Mississippi Burning" is still after 25 years a powerful and entertaining movie. Its strength is that whilst dramatizing the hot bed of racism in the 60s it still manages to deliver an entertaining storyline which means you want to watch and when you want to watch you take it all in.