Review: Mississippi Burning (1988)

Unflinching depiction of racial tension and violence in America's Deep South

Racial ideals, tensions and segregation introduce us to  Mississippi Burning. When three early college aged civil rights activists go missing, FBI agents Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Special Agent Alan Ward (Williem Dafoe) are sent from Washington DC to Jessup County Mississippi to investigate the disappearance.

While the two agents have different career experiences and styles of investigating, they unite on their intention to learn what happened to the three boys and find them—dead or alive. With Anderson’s experience of living in Mississippi and growing up in the South, his approach to interacting with towns people is more unorthodox than Ward’s, whose skill is at times overshadowed by his direct, by-the-book nature.

While the investigation mounts and more FBI reinforcements are brought in, Anderson and Ward are reminded that in the eyes of the town, just showing up went beyond overstepping their boundaries. People in Jessup county are either vocally racist (feeling that any harm that came to a “colored” person is their own fault), quietly supportive of African-Americans, or lingering on the outskirts of conversations — Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members are hiding in plain sight. The Klan send violent messages (without fear of repercussion) to the African-Americans in the area.

The differences in perspectives on the matter of segregation and civil rights is well displayed within Jessup County. Deputy Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif) and his wife Mrs. Pell (Frances McDormand) provide a great example of the influences of local law enforcement and the differences in ideas on racial equally within the area. Young Darius McCrary as Aaron Williams is fantastic. His resilience and understanding of what’s going on around him, despite his age is commendable to what the human spirit can endure.

Mississippi Burning shows how common place racial violence and segregation truly was during the Civil Rights movement. While an African-American church or home burns to the ground (thanks to the KKK or it’s supporters), local (white) people are enjoying going to the movies and doing typical day-to-day activities. While the odds are stacked against the Agents, they persist, with the help of some empathetic locals who see the injustice of theses racially driven crimes.

Violent scenes between Klan members and African-Americans in the area are brutal yet effective. The violence is juxtaposed to the soft, sombre gospel music—as if the violence is a sacrifice. That those suffering know that their suffering will not be in vein. Still, they live in fear. In crucial scenes, camera angles are well thought out to give viewers insight into the character’s experiences first hand.

Considering the film’s age, Mississippi Burning shows us both the benefits of living in a modern world, and the depressing realisation that for all the progress that has been made in the past thirty years thanks to the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil Rights act, these complex issues are still a work in progress. If we truly wish to live in a world that honours a person’s rights, we must be willing to resist trends that discriminate against others.

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