Made 27 years ago, a quarter of a century after the sensational murders of three civil rights workers in a small deep south township by Ku Klux Klan members that it recreates, Mississippi Burning is wearing well. Arguably the finest of Alan Parker’s 17 feature films, it’s a vivid, passionate political thriller combining melodrama and semi-documentary realism to powerful effect. Had it not been for a campaign directed against its British director from both blacks and whites for the alleged imbalance in its treatment of racial issues, most especially for giving insufficient emphasis to the African Americans’ role in the civil rights movement, this masterly film would have won more than the single award for cinematography it received after being nominated for seven major Oscars.
Mississippi Burning opens with two brilliantly contrasted sequences. The first is the blood-chilling pursuit at night on a straight, steeply undulating country road where moment by moment the image on screen alternates between the car driven by the northern outsiders and the three cars belonging to the southerners out to kill them. The second sequence follows immediately after the point-blank killing of the civil rights worker driving the first car, and it is deliberately and ironically light in tone. Shot in broad daylight on a flat open road, it shows two FBI agents, one a by-the-book liberal, Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe), the other, Rupert Anderson, a former Mississippi sheriff (Gene Hackman reprising his Popeye Doyle in pragmatic, enlightened mode), exchanging uneasy banter as they drive along the state highway to Jessup County, the name adopted by the film for the real Philadelphia, Mississippi.
The first sequence is fact, the second fiction. Both are shot, like the rest of the picture, on authentic locations in Mississippi and adjoining Alabama. At this point the two federal officers from Washington are unaware that the missing persons case they’ve been sent south to solve will turn into a complex murder investigation, though the homicide charges will be replaced by prosecutions for the denial of civil rights, offences to be heard in federal courts rather than by prejudiced local judges. Through the FBI men’s eyes we come to understand this community, and why orthodox legal procedure will not work in a culture where the arrogant culprits are protected by the southern version of omerta.
Mississippi Burning is a visceral experience, immersing the audience in the vicious anger of the local racists and the heat from the flaming crosses of the Ku Klux Klan: apparently in one scene reconstructing a KKK torching of a black church at night, Parker’s crew got so close to the blazing building action that the camera equipment was seriously damaged. What the film deliberately avoids by sticking to a single rural area of the south is the larger context, first of the civil rights movement in the north, then of the role of the Justice Department under attorney general Robert Kennedy in forcing the hand of the FBI’s director, J Edgar Hoover.
In his lifetime, Hoover was above criticism in Hollywood, but as Parker’s film was made 16 years after Hoover’s death, the agents can refer to his sharing the Klan’s hatred of Jews, communists, blacks and atheist agitators.
The performances are perfect: not just Dafoe and Hackman but Frances McDormand… and indeed every lived-in face in Jessup
The agents on the ground worked by patient investigation, manipulation and bribery, not through the use of violence in the manner of Eliot Ness and his Untouchables in the prohibition era. But Parker does make us reconsider that crucial period in postwar politics between the somnolence of the Eisenhower administration and the Vietnam war, and there is an eloquent final image of a southern cemetery with the stump of a vandalised headstone in the foreground on which only the words “1964 Not Forgotten” remain.
This new Blu-ray print contains a full-length commentary by Parker and interviews with Parker, Willem Dafoe and the screenwriter, Chris Gerolmo, which make it clear how deeply the director became involved with a project that was originally developed by the now defunct Orion company, a studio noted for its liberal views and its hands-off approach after it appointed a director. It’s clear that although Gerolmo was given a single credit, Parker reshaped the screenplay and was largely responsible for the choice of locations, the casting, the film’s tone and its politics. Moreover, it was made by key members of his regular British crew, most significantly his cinematographer, Peter Biziou (who won an Oscar), his editor, Gerry Hambling, and his production designer, Geoffrey Kirkland.
The performances by a large, carefully chosen cast are perfect – not just Dafoe and Hackman, but Frances McDormand as the sad housewife persuaded to betray her guilty husband, Brad Dourif as a craven lawman, R Lee Ermey as the town’s mayor, and indeed every lived-in face in Jessup.
The tension is sustained throughout, and the anger on both sides is incandescent, though there is no attempt made, as there was in so many Hollywood movies, to minimise the pain and indignity inflicted on African Americans, or to excuse the cruelty of a segregated society. It is all a long time ago now, but the period remains alive on the screen in Parker’s film and is sadly still echoed in this second decade of the 21st century. When unarmed African Americans are killed in New York, South Carolina, Florida and St Louis by white people who then go unpunished, we are reminded of the underlying tensions that continue to rumble on in American society.
"Mississippi Burning" by Allan Parker - Analytical Essay: (Racism and Prejudice)
1097 WordsJan 19th, 20125 Pages
Mississippi Burning – Analytical Essay
"Mississippi Burning", directed by Allan Parker, is set in the state of Mississippi, 1964. In this film, Parker shows that he feels sorry for black people, by strongly portraying the levels of racism and injustice towards negroes, which was implemented by white people (the Ku Klux Klan in particular) within the state. The Ku Klux Klan was a group of white people who believed that negroes were filth, and that they didn’t deserve to live equally among white people: “We want beautiful babies, not ones with brown faces”. They conveyed their message through strong acts of violence, to instil fear in the hearts of all negroes, and the majority of the state’s population were forced into racism, in fear…show more content…
Throughout the scene you can hear a negro lady singing a sad song, which allows you to understand that black people aren’t equal, and that they are forced to feel like they don’t belong there: “take my hand, lead me home”. The song also makes you feel melancholy, and creates a strong sense of pathos. Parker effectively juxtaposes the tap scene with this scene, in order to give the audience a clear understanding of the racism and prejudice against black people in Mississippi.
Parker vividly shows examples of this violence, prejudice, and segregation, through strong scenes of the murder and bashing of black people and those who stood up for them. In the next scene, three civil rights boys are murdered by the KKK. Two of them are white, and one of them is black. They were driving towards the Mississippi border, with the intentions of introducing equality between black and white people into other states, after failing to do so in Mississippi. Knowing about their work, the KKK decided to get rid of them, so they sent some of their members to follow the three boys in their car. This pursuit scene is set in a very dark landscape, in which the civil rights boys are driving a car with its lights on. Parker effectively uses silence to build anticipation in the audience, until three other cars appear, pursuing the boys. These cars do not have their lights on, and they are concealed in the night. Ominous music starts to play, which slowly starts to build and