Flickadaweek: Mississippi Burning

Mississippi has a strange and terrible beauty to it. Writers whose stables I’m not fit to muck (Faulkner, Welty, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown) have spent decades trying to come to terms with a region whose understated, pastoral loveliness adorns a culture that embraced the darkest reaches of the American Dream. In 1988, Hollywood took its shot at comprehending the insane brutality of Civil Rights-era Mississippi; “Mississippi Burning” is a fictionalized retelling of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers–two white, one black–near Philadelphia, Miss. The workers were ambushed by the local police and killed, their bodies buried in a levee. In the movie, Gene Hackman is a former small-town sheriff turned FBI worker; Willem Dafoe is a Bobby Kennedy disciple intending to bring the full weight of the federal government down on the heads of the peckerwoods who run Mississippi. Their ongoing battle over how best to break the backs of the cracker aristocracy mirrors the struggles that faced the federal government in the Sixties, with Bobby Kennedy–not unlike George W. Bush today–expressing complete disbelief and frustration that people didn’t just bow down and accept the mandates of the U.S. government.

The movie does have its problems–as one critic put it, blacks in the film are like teenagers in a horror flick–there to add cheap emotion and cannon fodder while the whites do the work. And by painting the police department and other assorted racists as such absolute villains, the movie misses a significant chance to strike deep at the heart of the audience. These rednecks are so violently racist–there’s not a scene in the movie where they’re not tossing out epithets–that the viewer immediately dissociates himself from them. But if we’d had a scene showing these men in their day-to-day life–a life not that different from yours and mine–it would be a lot harder to dismiss these men as unrecognizably different from ourselves.

The locations in Mississippi Burning are evocative; the actors uniformly superb. Check it out the next time it comes on cable…it’s a reminder of a time that shouldn’t be forgotten.


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