Tuesday 23 January 2007

Mississippi Burning (1988) Alan Parker

Mississippi in 1964 is not a pleasant place if you're black, as evidenced by the very first shot of the film: separate white and coloured drinking fountains, and you can imagine which one is shiny and new and works properly. Anyway a few people, including what appear to be cops, decide to take it a little further and three young civil rights activists, two white and one black, are murdered. The FBI send in a couple of agents to investigate their apparent disappearance but they find much more than that.

The agents are an intriguing couple with very different approaches: Gene Hackman, who was a former small town Mississippi sheriff himself and thus knows how it works, and a young Willem Dafoe, who is well aware of the civil rights movement from personal experience. The strange thing is that it's Dafoe's character, Agent Alan Ward, who's in charge. Agent Rupert Anderson, Hackman's character, is there to throw in expertise, offbeat humour and plenty of alternative investigation. After their hotel room is shot at to let them know there's a burning cross outside, Ward calls in reinforcements and starts up a headquarters and plan of attack but Anderson wanders round the barber shop and the hair salon finding out what he can find out. He wants the same ends but he doesn't want a war, and of course that's what Ward's actions instigate.

Of course with the town populated by the people it is, you can imagine the sort of situation they're facing. The sheriff is the only one who doesn't immediately leap out at me: he's Gailard Sartain and I've seen him in films from Roadie to Fried Green Tomatoes to Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, but it's the rest who stand out before they even appear on screen. The mayor is W Lee Ermey, the gunnery sergeant in Full Metal Jacket; the deputy is Brad Dourif, possibly the most intense actor on screen over the last few decades, not least in films like Wise Blood, Chaindance and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; and his wife is Frances McDormand, who deservedly won an Oscar for Fargo. Add in Michael Rooker and you're looking at serious intensity.

The whole film is a serious accomplishment. That it sits in good company with In the Heat of the Night is a great compliment but not an unfair one. Gene Hackman is superb and many of the rest of the cast aren't that far behind. It's the message that stands out most though and that's one that's going to resonate. It's a fictionalised version of true events, but in reality nobody was brought to book for the murder of three real civil rights activists, J E Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, until 2005. The Klan grand wizard who authorised it, was also eventually convicted to life in 1998 but for another murder, and even then only on the fifth trial.

There's a lot here that demonstrates the emotional immaturity of the United States. These events are set in 1964 which is ancient history to many Americans but still not that long ago, and however much this story is fictionalised, there are equivalent stories in most towns and states across the south. Even now I saw a lot of similarity between Dafoe's escalation of this situation with the Bush administration's treatment of Iraq. They went in, didn't understand how things worked and tried to solve the problem with sheer force of numbers. Instead of solving the problem they made it worse and polarised a lot of local opinion against them, even from those who ought to be on their side.

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