Mississippi Burning, 1988.
Directed by Alan Parker.
Starring: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, and Michael Rooker.
Nominated for seven Oscars, including its director and two cast members, Mississippi Burning settled for just one trophy. That’s about to be expected for a movie that’s good but not great. This new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber features a restored print, a commentary track ported over from previous releases, and nothing else.
When Mississippi Burning was released in 1988, I remember considering it a dramatization of an important piece of history, but still something firmly rooted in the past. The United States had progressed past such things, right? Sure, a girl in my third grade class called me a “n—– lover” for reading a biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, but incidents like that were rare occurrences in our modern society. Right?
Then some punks in khakis carried torches and chanted slogans straight out of 1930s era Germany, and I realized that this nation’s dark heart was still beating, and a virulent strain of racism was out of the shadows. We all know who has emboldened such people – I won’t say his name here. But recent events make a movie like Mississippi Burning more relevant than ever.
The story’s protagonists are a pair of FBI agents played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe. Their relationship is straight out of a buddy cop movie: Hackman’s Rupert Anderson is a no-nonsense guy who doesn’t mind bending rules and breaking some bones to get the job done, while Dafoe’s Alan Ward is a by-the-book type who’d rather throw money and manpower at a problem than get his suit wrinkled.
They’re investigating the brutal murders of three civil rights activists who were investigating church burnings and trying to register African-Americans to vote in a state that was a hotbed of racism during the civil rights era. The local sheriff and his deputies were complicit in the crime – they rule their small town with iron fists, and they’re not happy to see the presence of FBI agents on their turf.
Brad Dourif brought a variation of his memorable manic quality from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to his character of deputy Clinton Pell while Frances McDormand, playing Pell’s wife, cemented her status as a force to be reckoned with in her fourth theatrical film in five years. She and Anderson come close to having a full-blown affair; his ability to make her swoon could be seen as a bit of love that could never be or a shrewd play to get her to sell her husband out, depending on how cynical you are.
The crime Anderson and Ward investigate is based on a real one that’s a notorious piece of civil rights history, although their characters are fictional ones devised to give the tale its emotional center. They clash throughout the story, and there are moments where the dialogue veers into clichéd territory, with one lecturing the other about how he doesn’t understand how things really work. One moment it’s Anderson getting his comeuppance for going too far, another it’s Ward getting a lesson on how you need to work the mean streets to be successful as an FBI agent.
Unfortunately, it feels like there are a few too many such scenes. They produce an effect like the characters pinballing off each other, neither really making much headway in convincing the other that he’s right. In the end, though, one does seem to sell out his principles, if just a little bit, to bring the investigation to a close.
However, those dynamics don’t completely diminish the movie. It’s memorable for its leads’ remarkable performances, and it’s worth revisiting because it shines a light on a period of American history that has begun to fade a bit. Perhaps high schools should make it mandatory viewing in their US History classes.
This new Blu-ray release of Mississippi Burning features a new high-def master from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. It looks as nice as a 31-year-old film should look in high-def these days. Judging by the comparisons I’ve seen online, this print is better than previous high-def versions, although the difference doesn’t seem enough to warrant a double-dip, unless you’re a devoted fan of the movie.
Unfortunately, the only bonus feature on this disc is a commentary track by director Alan Parker. It’s been available before, so if you have a release that it’s on, be aware that it’s not new. It’s an adequate commentary, with Parker revealing some interesting tidbits of information, such as which characters were played by real locals with no acting experience, but there are stretches where he lapses into silence.
There’s also a trailer for the movie, along with trailers for several other films.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★