Catch-Up: Mississippi Burning
The pun is intended: this movie is too black and white. Leaving no room for ambiguity, Mississippi Burning uses manipulative music and stereotypical characters to get one point across: the members of the Ku Klux Klan are assholes.
When a movie tackles a difficult subject – whatever that may be: racism, genocide, incest, domestic violence – it is awkward to criticize it, whereas one would have no problem criticizing Tooth Fairy, say. But no matter what the subject matter of the movie is, it is still a movie. Just because you knock (or praise) it does not mean you’re knocking (or praising) the sentiment behind it.
Mississippi Burning begins with a promising scene between FBI agents Rupert Anderson and Alan Ward (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, respectively). Driving into Mississippi, the two men are getting to know each other: sparring – almost flirting – establishing their egos and their disparate ways of getting things done. However, after that first scene, their relationship is not explored any further. The story is about an investigation, in a small Mississippi town, of three missing civil rights activists; throughout the movie, it is said there would not be an investigation had not two of the activists been white. The town’s officials, the police department, and almost all of its white citizens are dead set against the massive, time consuming investigation. Ward (Dafoe), wearing 1960’s horn rim glasses, goes by the books, and Anderson (Hackman) doesn’t. For example, Ward’s answer for everything is to order in more agents from Washington D.C. to search for the body. Anderson is more brutish. The best, most satisfying scene in the movie is when Anderson (Hackman) struts into an exclusive Klan clubhouse. After enduring some harassment and unsubtle intimidation, Anderson grabs Frank Bailey (Michael Rooker – Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) by the balls and Anderson tells Bailey the way it’s gonna be. Even if it’s a stock scene, it’s a good scene. Otherwise, the movie is just stock. Anderson (Hackman) finds Mrs. Pell (Frances McDormand), wife of a wormy-looking police officer (Brad Dourif), working in a beauty salon. She is, of course, the key to the investigation as well as the love interest. Anderson sleeps with Mrs. Pell and Mr. Pell beats her unmercifully, with his buddies watching. So Anderson beats up Mr. Pell in a barber’s chair, spinning him around, cutting his neck with a shaving razor – a scene that could have had the raw, justified anger of the aforementioned nut-squeezing scene with Rooker, but falls short. Perhaps it’s because it’s more satisfying watching a strong man cower in pain than a weak one.
Bottom line: the movie does not satisfy. I feel as though director Alan Parker and his team were a little lazier than usual because they knew, as they say, they’d be preaching to the choir.
As for the black community in the film, they are not visibly angry about the tyranny put upon them, as much as they are sad and afraid. I cannot say if this was really the case, but the fact that not one black man or woman steps out of line, lashes out and hurts one of the Klan members (who are disguised, by and large, as police officers), negates any realism the film intended, basing it, as they did, on true events.