1988 / Best Actor / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actress

Film #315: Mississippi Burning (1988)

Continuing our theme of looking at the continuation of stars’ careers we move on to a man who starred in two of my favourite films of the 1970s. Though he starred in some of the 1970s’ best movies, the 1980s was a pretty dull decade for Gene Hackman as he only featured in one Best Picture nominee. However, he did find himself nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role as FBI Agent Rupert Anderson in Mississippi Burning.

That film was Mississippi Burning, in which Hackman starred as FBI Agent Rupert Anderson who returned to his home state of Mississippi in order to solve the case of two missing civil rights workers. The film, set in 1964, centres around the rural community of Jessop County who don’t take too kindly to two outsiders interfering in their business. At the time, segregation was rife and even staff in the sheriff’s department are members of the Klu Klux Klan. The black members of the community are often at risk of having their churches set on fire or to find flaming crosses on their lawns. Anderson’s superior Agent on the case is the much younger Alan Ward, a college-educated liberal who isn’t as worldly wise as his new partner. Indeed, Anderson knows the area well and is able to get more information by popping into the local beauty parlour than Ward does when he formally questions a number of suspects. Feeling he’s getting nowhere, Ward calls for more agents to descend on the area, followed soon by the press and members of the army. Eventually, a war of words breaks out between the locals and the agents, with the black members of the town caught in the middle. Ward and Anderson are later convinced that Deputy Pell had something to do with the death of the men and question his wife about her flimsy alibi. When Anderson appeals to Mrs Pell’s better nature he sets in course a chain of events which change the area forever.

In his other nominated film Midnight Express, director Alan Parker manipulated certain events of a true story in order to create a more compelling film. He did this again with Mississippi Burning, in which he fictionalised the investigation into the civil rights worker’s disappearance to create a gripping narrative. I was quite enthralled throughout most of Mississippi Burning, which took the form of a standard police procedural albeit it one that dealt with deeper themes. Peter Biziou’s Oscar-winning cinematography really encapsulates the mood of the time as he able to get the audience to experience the hatred felt between both sides of the community. His shots of the attacks on the churches were particularly exceptional and provided some harrowing imagery throughout the film. Just like in Midnight Express, the haunting score makes you feel uneasy at times, though this film was nowhere near as gritty as the Turkish prison epic. The disparate nature of the two agents is what’s at the heart of the film and their both given life by two fantastic actors. As Ward, Willem Dafoe gives quite a methodical performance as the educated man forced to deal with customs that he sees as backwards. However, this is really Hackman’s film and he delivers another outstanding turn as the agent raised in a similar community who is forced to return to the hatred that he thought he’d left behind. Hackman portrays Anderson as somebody who understands the people, but also disagrees with them and his mixture of humour and violence is an unsettling combination. Hackman was Oscar-nominated for his role here as was Frances McDormand as the timid Mrs Pell who later gets her chance at a new life. The one real problem I had with Mississippi Burning was that I found it to be a little bit too one-sided at times as in all of the white members of the community were shocking racists and all of the black civilians were victims. Whilst I feel that this is probably close to the truth, it does make both sides come off as caricatures at times. Luckily, Anderson and Ward feel like real people and this contributes to an incredibly satisfying, if harrowing film about the many forms that prejudice comes in.


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