Mississippi Burning (1988) starring Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, & Frances McDormand

1964. When America was at war with itself. – Tag line

Mississippi Burning was very controversial when first released; in this time (after the Trump administration), it resonates stronger than ever. Some younger readers may never have heard of this film; it is fiction, but based on a real case (labeled “Mississippi Burning” by the FBI). The film is inspired by the 1964 murder by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) of three Congress of Racial Equity (CORE) field workers who were registering Black voters in Mississippi: a Black man named James Chaney (age 21) and two white (Jewish) men- Michael Schwerner (age 20) and Andrew Goodman (age 24). Some critics felt that many facts were altered or left out. There is much to admire re: this movie, though to our modern eyes, the lack of a fully-fleshed out Black character may be problematic. Director Spike Lee didn’t like it; he felt the preacher’s son (Aaron) was a “magical Negro” trope. On the other hand, this was Roger Ebert’s choice for the best film of 1988. You know it made a big impact (overseas), b/c it was (unofficially) remade into a Bollywood film, Aakrosh (2010).

Mayor Tilman: You like baseball, do you, Anderson?

Anderson: Yeah, I do. You know, it’s the only time when a black man can wave a stick at a white man and not start a riot.

When you think about it, 1964 is NOT too far back in time from 1988. Barry Norman (BBC film critic) described the (harrowing) opening of the film as “pure cinema, something no other medium could do so effectively.” Then we shift to the (much lighter) scene w/ the main characters- FBI agents Mr. Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Mr. Ward (Willem Dafoe- just 32). Don Johnson campaigned heavily for the role that went to Dafoe- LOL! Anderson (older/rumpled) studies some papers from a folder and sings a KKK song; Ward (younger/crisply-suited) isn’t amused. Anderson is making fun of the KKK, but Ward says: “I could do w/o the cabaret.” Anderson is a former small-town sheriff; Ward is a former DOJ attorney (“a Kennedy boy,” as Anderson comments). These men don’t know each other well and are mismatched, the viewer knows right away.

When they reach the small town, the agents are met w/ long/angry stares and outright hostility from the locals. Ward makes a (Northern/liberal) mistake; he goes to sit at the “Colored” section of the busy diner (NOT heeding the warning from Anderson, who knows the South). The young Black man sitting beside him becomes nervous and refuses to answer Ward’s questions; all eyes are on them. In the sheriff’s office, they first meet Deputy Pell (Brad Dourif), who isn’t too welcoming. Dourif makes some interesting choices w/ his role; he doesn’t always play it tough (we see that Pell is being influenced by more stronger personalities). Suddenly, Sheriff Stuckey (Gailard Sartain) pops out of his office, and starts breezily chatting w/ Anderson. Ward corrects him after Stuckey (the epitome of a fat, uncaring, racist cop) assumes Anderson is in charge of the investigation. In the barbershop, Anderson meets Mayor Tilman (R. Lee Ermey), who is more casually racist. In the motel lodge (later that night), we see the agents drinking and sharing stories. Anderson (matter-of-factly/softly) reveals something about his childhood growing up in the South.

Anderson: Where does it come from? All this hatred?

Anderson: You know, when I was a little boy, there was an old Negro farmer that lived down the road from us, name of Monroe. And he was… well, I guess he was just a little luckier than my daddy was. He bought himself a mule. That was a big deal around that town. My daddy hated that mule, ’cause his friends were always kidding him that they saw Monroe out plowing with his new mule, and Monroe was going to rent another field now he had a mule. One morning, that mule showed up dead. They poisoned the water. After that, there wasn’t any mention about that mule around my daddy. It just never came up. One time, we were driving down that road, and we passed Monroe’s place and we saw it was empty. He just packed up and left, I guess, he must of went up North or something. I looked over at my daddy’s face. I knew he done it. He saw that I knew. He was ashamed. I guess he was ashamed. He looked at me and said, “If you ain’t better than a n****r, son, who are you better than?”

Ward: You think that’s an excuse?

Anderson: No it’s not an excuse. It’s just a story about my daddy.

Ward: Where’s that leave you?

Anderson: My old man was just so full of hate that he didn’t know that bein’ poor was what was killin’ him.

A shotgun fires from a screeching car into the motel room! Ward decides that more agents are needed ASAP. The young Black man from the diner is picked up my some (hooded) men, beaten, and imprisoned in a large chicken coop in a field of cotton. (FYI: Since this wasn’t the season for cotton, the crew had to decorate the field w/ bits of cotton.) Then we see the same Black man pushed out of a car in the center of town- sending an (obvious) message to the FBI. The local cops and a group of (suited) FBI agents run to check on the injured man; Stuckey declares that his men will handle the matter. Agents have set up their HQ in the movie theater. Later we see them (along w/ buses of fresh-faced sailors) drag a swamp (a real one w/ mud, bugs, and possible alligators) for dead bodies.

…I didn’t do research. All I did was listen to [Hackman]. He had an amazing capacity for not giving away any part of himself (in read-throughs). But the minute we got on the set, little blinds on his eyes flipped up and everything was available. It was mesmerizing. He’s really believable, and it was like a basic acting lesson. -Frances McDormand

Now this isn’t just a typical “macho” movie; at the heart of it is the wife of the deputy- Mrs. Pell (a young Frances McDormand)- who also runs a hair salon (Gilly’s). Anderson first drops in at the salon, making self-deprecating comments about his hair (w/ its receding hairline). This amuses some of the ladies; Mrs. Pell bluntly points out that the FBI wouldn’t be around if the white men weren’t missing (along w/ Chaney). Later, when Ward and Anderson drop by the Pell’s humble home, we see the (not so pleasant) dynamic between the couple. While Ward interviews her husband, Anderson goes to the kitchen and strikes up a convo w/ Mrs. Pell (in a humble manner, using folksy charm). Later that night, we learn more about both characters when Anderson comes by w/ some wildflowers. We see the romantic chemistry growing between Anderson and Mrs. Pell, despite their ages and the situation. She has to lie to cover for her husband; Anderson realizes that she is lying (and they both look disappointed about it). Before he leaves, he gently touches her hair (a bold, yet vulnerable move). In a previous scene, Anderson had made “a power move” on Deputy Pell; he is working late (or maybe getting into some violence w/ his KKK pals).

Mrs. Pell: It’s ugly. This whole thing is so ugly. Have you any idea what it’s like to live with all this? People look at us and only see bigots and racists. Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation what’s said in the Bible… Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.

After being hired by Orion Pictures, Parker made several changes from screenwriter Chris Gerolmo’s original draft (which was “a big/violent detective story”). Parker omitted a Mafia hitman and created Agent Monk. The scene in which Frank Bailey brutally beats a news cameraman was based on an actual event. Parker also wrote a sex scene involving Anderson and Mrs. Pell. The scene was omitted (after Hackman suggested to Parker that the relationship between the two characters be more discreet). Though some close-ups were shot, in the final film, the kiss between Hackman and McDormand is in shadow (at a respectful distance). The music (composed by Trevor Jones) is a very crucial part of this movie; it creates a tense (thriller-like) atmosphere in many scenes. In several key scenes, there is the gospel element. The movie was shot in Alabama and Mississippi, so there is authenticity. We see the old buildings, dust, poverty, rural lands, and (above all) local people (some of whom may had sympathies to the Klan). There are many character actors who add flavor to the story: Kevin Dunn (a young/eager FBI agent coordinating the case), Stephen Tobolowsky (a prominent businessman/KKK leader), Michael Rooker (the unapologetic tough guy/KKK member-Frank Bailey), a teen Darius McCrary (Aaron), Frankie Faison (a respected preacher/Aaron’s father), and Badja Djola (the Black FBI interrogator- Agent Monk). Ward (who is no pushover, despite his by-the-book approach) and Anderson (smarter than he looks) come to respect each other, but it happens slowly; they don’t become “buddy cops.”

3 thoughts on “Mississippi Burning (1988) starring Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, & Frances McDormand

  1. This film was *so* controversial when it came out. I think every constituency it touched on or appealed to hated it! I saw it again recently and felt like I hadn’t appreciated the theatrical / acting aspects of it at all (esp the young Frances McDormand); I had been too busy thinking about the politics.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I only saw it once before (maybe in late ‘90s); it’s pretty good (but it’s lacking the Black perspective). Of course, in the late ‘80s, it was tough to get a movie made w/ such a view (so focus was on the white characters).

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      • iirc the NAACP or Mrs. King campaigned against the film back then. They didn’t have as much traction back then as they would now.

        Liked by 1 person

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