47 FILMS: 11. MISSISSIPPI BURNING
More 47 Films to see before you’re murdered in your dreams. This episode we take a trip to the South at the height of the Civil Rights struggle to witness Mississippi Burning.
Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning got a hard time on its release for suggesting – it was felt – that the Civil Rights struggle was won by some well-meaning and white FBI agents doing honest police work in the face of vile opposition. The film is in fact far less ambitious than that. It’s really a murder procedural played out against the background of the Civil Rights struggle. More Dirty Harry in the South than Selma.
When three activists go missing in 1964, Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) are sent to the small town on the Mississippi to investigate. Here they meet resistance from the local law enforcement, the major and the Klan friendly citizenry. The black populace are even more unwilling to be seen to be helping as they are in constant danger from violent reprisals, church burnings and lynchings. Despite his relative youth, Ward is the superior who insists that everything will be done according to procedure. Anderson, himself a good ole boy and once a Sheriff of a similar town, however believes in breaking the rules to get results and is more than comfortable with fighting fire with fire. They are – to coin a phrase – chalk and cheese, but the cliché of the mismatched pair doesn’t really matter when you have two actors of this calibre firing on all engines. Hackman in particular is fantastic, whether he’s wooing the locals or grabbing Michael Rooker by the crotch until Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer weeps like a child.
With great support from a young Frances McDormand as the wife to Brad Dourif’s brutal deputy sheriff, as well as Dourif himself and Stephen Tobolowsky and R. Lee Ermey as the mayor, Mississippi Burning also looks fantastic thanks to an on form Alan Parker who had just made Angel Heart a year earlier. Having taken something of a dip post-Commitments, Parker disappeared, leaving erst while rival Ridley Scott as the senior Brit made good, but with a body of work that includes these two films as well as Pink Floyd the Wall, Fame, Birdy and the amazing Bugsy Malone, a reappraisal is long overdue.