Mississippi Burning (1988)

Directed by Alan Parker; Written by Chris Gerolmo

It’s disheartening when a movie about institutional racism in 1964, filmed in 1988, ages well into 2022 because of the subject matter, yet that’s the case with Mississippi Burning, Alan Parker’s searing story of two FBI agents who travel to a small town in Mississippi to solve the mystery of where three civil rights activist went, uncovering a city waging a silent race war.  

The two agents in question, Ward and Anderson, are in a civil war of their own. Ward, three years into a soaring career with the bureau, is a bit of a pencil neck who believes in the institutional power of the badge, its rules, processes, and almost militant manpower it can summon. Anderson, many years his senior, frumpy, a former Mississippi cop, believes in natural gumshoe investigation techniques, leveraging southern geniality, a little provocation here and there, and bending the rules to fit the crime at hand. They butt heads on most things. 

Together, they’re up against a bastion of the racist south, a town firmly in the grips of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. Segregation remains in full effect, black citizens won’t speak out in fear of repercussions from whites who seem above the law, as leading members of society are either card-carrying KKK members, or simply turn the other eye, secretly agreeing with their goals if not their methods. How do you remove the weeds if the ground itself is cursed?

In Mississippi Burning, the investigation is not a question of guilt, because we know a crime was committed. Instead, it’s a question of morality in the face of the immoral. Can a person succeed by remaining virtuous and by-the-book if your opponent has no regard for the written word? 

Parker’s film swells on the energy of its righteous cause and the tension of the mighty task ahead. Initial prodding is met with intimidation, then violence. Ward calls in reinforcements and hundreds of suits descend on the town, bringing the media along for the circus. It brings out the worst in (white) people, and the town’s black citizens, already oppressed, become targets like they were 100 years prior. Meanwhile, Anderson disagrees vehemently with the show of might Ward believes in. 

The warring philosophies of the two main characters is what sustains Mississippi Burning. Ward’s disbelief in the face of such abject hatred is a perfect representation of the elitist attitudes city folks have about the South. His belief in progress and the theory of civility blinds him to realities on the ground, too focused on where society’s headed to see where it’s at. A young Willem Dafoe seems almost cast for his physique, his angular features sculpted by rigid belief and adherence to procedure. His eyes are not boring and shrewd like they’ll come to be known, but wide-eyed.

Anderson, on the other hand, has a finger on the pulse, coming from a place like this. He has shed its backwards attitudes, but understands the sentiments of the place better, the grievances that fuel the local ire. He’s a little pudgy, his attire disheveled. He’s jovial, even a little jolly, as he tries to ingratiate himself with the locals, a good old boy. All the more power to Gene Hackman’s performance to then see the muscle hard beneath the flab and the force he can muster as he shows what ends he’s capable of. In Anderson, he gets to unfold his range, going from giddy boy to cut-throat militia man to tender, as the situation demands. 

These two perfect leads play off each other so well, and while they both fight for the same thing, which is ostensibly justice, their methods give the film its spark and lasting impression, because the same discussions these two men have here are the same people are having on Twitter in 2022. 

Like the New York Times being accused of kowtowing to right wingers through adherence to a code of “both sides”-coverage. Or Democrats not gerrymandering as hard as Republicans. Or the nomination of Joe Biden, a moderate whose virtues was touted to be his ability to to work across the aisle with his supposed political opponents, when the guy he’s running against wouldn’t even stand in the way of his own vice president being lynched.

Is civility in face of wickedness a fool’s gambit? What’s won if decency is lost along the way? Have our politics become so polarized and entrenched that any one’s so-called victory over the other is a pyrrhic one? Mississippi Burning invites a discussion of them all. 

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