FILM RATING: 5 stars
One of the most important movies in the last 25 years, and in the history of cinema itself, is director Alan Parker’s masterpiece on racism in the south in the 1960’s. Mississippi Burning (1988) is not only an incredible piece of cinema with some of the most engaging and emotional writing, acting, music, and visuals, it’s also a chilling and violent reminder of the absolutely disgusting behavior that human beings are possible of committing. Mississippi Burning shows us an embarrassing part of our American history, just like Schindler’s List (1993) shows the equivalent for our world history. Both films do so in a respectful and powerful manner that also shows the love and acceptance that we are capable of when we fight for it and stand up to what we ultimately realize is wrong.
This movie is controversial and serious, not exactly a movie one goes to for an escape like movies are so often used for. But movies like this are also one of the most important ways we share and communicate our history in a way that hopefully prevents us from repeating it. While a documentary about the same events in Mississippi Burning could be powerful, its the raw emotional drama and conflict of this film that permanently brands itself on the heart and minds of its viewers. I believe movies like Mississippi Burning not only reflect on our culture, but actually change it forever. I’ve watched this film at least a dozen times over the past 23 years and I never tire of watching it again. I’m always reminded that my words and my actions as a human being have consequences and influences not only on myself, but on society as a whole. This film is still as relevant, important and interesting today as it was when it came out, and will be for many years to come. And it definitely deserves a stellar remastering and release on blu-ray, hopefully from The Criterion Collection.
Led by Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, and Frances McDormand, Mississippi Burning is cinematic drama at its best. Hackman is absolutely brilliant, right alongside his incredible performances in Hoosiers (1986), Class Action (1991), and Unforgiven (1992). While he lost out to Dustin Hoffman, who won the Academy Award in 1989 for Best Actor, Hackman was nominated for his lead role in Mississippi Burning and was certainly deserving of winning the Oscar for this role. As Hackman’s FBI superior and partner in solving the murders at the center of the story, Dafoe shows every bit of why he is one of the great male actors of his generation as well. The bitter rivalry and unity juxtaposed between these two characters makes for chewy dialogue and thrilling scenes. The chemistry between these two actors and their characters is always palpable, and while they may disagree on how to solve the issues of racism, murder, and violence, they are united on the cause to end them. Frances McDormand, as the Sheriff’s Deputy’s wife, is the quiet, subtle, southern lady that we would expect, torn between her internal moral beliefs and the external circumstances she is forced to reckon with. Her character’s courage and strength comes out over the course of the film and binds you to the complexity of these issues and the amazing fact that we’ve worked our way through them as well as we have.
The script by Chris Gerolmo is extremely well-written with juicy dialogue that pops and sizzles on the screen and feels completely genuine and appropriate. A more conservative writer, and director, might not choose to use the harsh language that was actually used during these times. Gerolmo and director Alan Parker both embrace those words, such as the N-word, as hard as it is to hear them, because they know that this is the only way to communicate on a visceral level that will have a lasting impact on viewers. The ideas, mindsets, words, actions, and behavior of the people portrayed in this movie in the 1960’s needs to be real and accurate in order to portray the hard truths of why racism has been so hard to overcome. When I watch this film, part of me feels proud of how far we’ve come in the last 50 years, but another part of me feels like we still have a long way to go. Because some of the ideas, mindsets and language in this film are still out there in our culture and around the world. That’s a testament to the writing by Chris Gerolmo and the storytelling craft of Parker.
Winning the Best Cinematography Oscar in 1989, Mississippi Burning is an incredible looking movie. The production design and photography are completely real, with the time period flawlessly portrayed through the sets, locations, costumes, makeup, and all the other details in the film. While the editing has a few minor flaws that I notice now simply because of my numerous viewings, they never distract you for long because the story keeps moving at a perfect pace. While you might think that a movie like this would be tough to get through at over 2 hours, it zips along fast for me every time, even when I know what’s coming up. And a big part of the reason it moves so well, is the score. Music composer Trevor Jones put together one of the most finely matched movie scores of all time. The tone and beats of the music are just so perfectly paired with the editing and the storytelling that it makes me tear up every single time when its supposed to. It’s one of the deepest and darkest musical scores, with its often repeating elements that are played over and over again. But that repetition works so well because it ties the various scenes and elements of the film together over its entirety. It’s really hard to even discuss it, but when you experience it, you know what I mean.
Obviously I have a passion for this film and it occupies a high place in my list of the best movies of all time. It’s in my Top 50 and I give the film 5 out of 5 stars. I just can’t see any way this film could be any better. There’s nothing missing and it is perfect for the story it tells. There really are no equivalent films on this subject matter in my opinion. And if by some chance you or your children haven’t seen this film, it’s an important viewing (at the appropriate age and maturity level), so that we never see two drinking fountains side by side again the way we do in the opening shot of Mississippi Burning.