Every year, Hollywood releases at least one or two mainstream movies that become controversial topics in their own right and get discussed/analysed/taken apart by fans and media. 1988 had Mississippi Burning. The film was a fictionalized account of the FBI investigation in the murder of three civil rights activists in the state of Mississippi in 1964.
Three activists, including two white and one black man, go missing one night. Special Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman in an Oscar-nominated role) arrive to investigate the whole affair and the movie takes on from there. It was criticised for its fictionalization of history and also for the fact that there wasn’t a single central black character. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., had this to say about the film:
“How long will we have to wait before Hollywood finds the courage and the integrity to tell the stories of some of the many thousands of black men, women and children who put their lives on the line for equality?”
Truth be told, whitewashing, white saviour, and the white man’s burden are themes that aren’t alien to Hollywood and controversy, but for a person like me who didn’t know about the background of the film, nor the fact that it was, so to say, loosely based on a true story (I thought it was fiction), it wasn’t an issue when I watched it. Mind you, I came to know about all this after I read about the film, post-watching it, on Wikipedia. And indeed, if you don’t consider those factors, this is a really good film. Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Alan Parker) and Best Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand), it is rated 7.8/10 on IMDb and 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert, the gold standard of film critics, declared it “The best film of 1988” and also later ranked it the 8th best film of the 1980s. These positive bits about the movie are what I want to talk about today.
Right from when the film opens, there is an air of fear permeating throughout it. As we go deeper, the appalling conditions of the black people in the KKK-dominated South becomes clear. Standout shocking scenes include one of a black man being hanged on a tree after his home is burnt and another of dead livestock, roasted-alive. A black guy is beaten mercilessly by Klan members even after he refuses to talk with the Dafoe character. Frances McDormand as Mrs. Pell, wife of a racist cop, gives a performance that shows how petrified even non-racist whites were in those times. This is the real triumph of the film, showing in each reel the terror experienced by the victims and the impunity with which the perpetrators carried on, secure in the knowledge that the crooked system was with them. For people of this generation who never lived through those times, it is a window into how bad things were. The film also has a particular resonance with the “Black Lives Matter” movement today, as police brutality/complicity contributed to the events that happened back then, as they do to this day.
At its core, this is a buddy cop thriller – but the efforts of the cast and crew, plus the story, take it from decent to a great flick. Hackman single-handedly standing up to Klan members in a pub is a notable sequence. If only there had also been a black person doing so, the controversy could very well have been avoided. Regardless, it’s a recommended watch.
Mississippi Burning is rated R.
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