Feisty British director Alan Parker takes on the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi Burning as two white FBI agents head up a government probe into the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi during the summer of 1964.
The two FBI men – rough-around-the-edges white liberal anti-intellectual Agent Anderson (Gene Hackman) and spiky white liberal intellectual Agent Ward (Willem Dafoe) – arrive in the small town of Jessup to investigate the disappearance.
Enraged by the increasingly hostile behaviour of the local KKK, Ward drafts in more and more agents from Washington. “You’ll start a war,” Anderson warns him. “It was a war long before we got here,” Ward snaps back.
The film’s concentration on the efforts of the two agents – tight-lipped play-it-by-the-book Ward and more instinctive Southern lawman Anderson (he used to be a Mississippi sheriff) – and the marginalisation of blacks in the story, brought accusations of racism which Parker strongly denied.
Though Mississippi Burning depicts many appalling (and broadly accurate) incidents of racist violence, its narrative focus is on what race politics meant to white people.
Most of the black characters in the film are passive, with two notable exceptions. First, the screenplay puts a few aspirations to freedom in the mouth of an angelic young boy, perhaps hoping that the fact he is a child will render anything that sounds like a demand less threatening to any jittery white people in the audience.
Second, it creates a flip side to the innocent black child: the scary black monster. Badass FBI Agent Monk (Badja Djola) kidnaps the town’s racist mayor and threatens to chop his privates off with a razor blade if he doesn’t give up the guilty men. Monk is pretty implausible, though there were such things as black FBI agents in 1964.
This was Hackman’s first major role for several years and he dominates all before him, whether beating up bigoted Deputy and lynch mob leader Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif) in a barber’s shop, making jokes with Dafoe’s uptight fellow agent or gently flirting with Frances McDormand’s terrified Klan widow, Mrs Pell.
Loosely based on a true story and shot with great visual flair (Peter Biziou won the Oscar for best cinematography), this is a gripping evocation of the early days of the civil rights movement.
Agent Rupert Anderson
Agent Alan Ward
Deputy Clinton Pell
R Lee Ermey
Pruitt Taylor Vince