October 16, 2015

Mississippi Burning (1988)
Grade: 50/100

Director: Alan Parker
Stars: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand

What it's about. Set in a small town in Mississippi during 1964, and based on a true story. Three young civil rights activists are murdered by a small but powerful group of white supremacists, which includes the sheriff (Gailard Sartain), his deputy Pell (Frances McDormand), the mayor (R. Lee Ermey), the local Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard (Stephen Tobolowsy) and various malevolent malingerers.

They are either backed up or tolerated by the other whites. Meanwhile, blacks are denied the right to vote, segregated to a shanty town, and subject to frequent nighttime raids of arson, beatings, and lynchings.

Into this unjust environment appear scores of FBI agents, determined to solve the murders and convict the culprits. They agents are led by Gene Hackman, a gregarious and cunning good-old-boy, and Willem Dafoe, a young Kennedy look-alike from New England. Naturally, Dafoe and Hackman are at odds at how to proceed. Dafoe goes by the book and gets nowhere, while Hackman does what he pleases to make progress. Both despise the white conspirators, and the feeling is mutual.

How others will see it. Mississippi Burning was generally praised by the critics. The box office was middling, but it landed many Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, several in major categories.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a respectable 62K user votes and a high and consistent user rating of 7.8. Injustice is always a powerful theme, and most viewers think it's just great that Popeye Doyle, er, Gene Hackman, succeeds in breaking a conspiracy of racist murderers by becoming nearly as violent and criminal as they are.

How I felt about it. It is depressing to observe a movie as bogus as Mississippi Burning receive seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor), and remain praised more than a quarter-century later.

Here we have FBI agents acting like gangsters. Hackman cuts up a suspect with a razor blade and beats him. Another kidnaps the mayor, binds and gags him, and threatens to castrate him. Hackman squeezes the balls of another suspect when he is the sole agent in a bar full of murderers who would like to add him to their list of victims. Why didn't they jump him and claim self defense?

Here we have Hackman assaulting a fellow agent, Dafoe, who pulls out a handgun and presses it against Hackman's head. Reporters are assaulted in broad daylight in front of other reporters.

Most mystifying of all is Dourif's beating of McDormand, with four fellow conspirators in the room watching. She is now more likely than ever to testify against all of them. Who can now be sent to prison for severely beating her. And why would Dourif have told her where the "three boys" were buried? Does he always report his acts of murder, arson, and oppression to his wife?

Generally, the local whites are racist rednecks, and the local blacks are noble and righteous. Weren't Southern blacks the leaders of the civil rights movement? Instead of FBI agents?

In real life, the wife of a deputy was not the snitch. It was a self-employed white male who was paid $30K by the FBI for the information, equivalent to about $250K today.

Perhaps the silliest part of the movie is the implication that the conspirators were imprisoned before McDormand returned from the hospital. In real life, they appealed their convictions and were not imprisoned until 1970, six years after the civil rights workers were murdered.

You would think that viewers would be outraged that FBI agents are depicted as violent vigilantes. Instead, message board comments at imdb praise the scenes as inspirational. Yay! Pell gets beaten up! It's like the final panel of the classic Charles Atlas course cartoon strip where the beach bully gets his comeuppance, to the approval of his girlfriend.