Friday, February 28, 2014
(December 1988, U.S.)
Every once in a while, Hollywood gives us a film that reminds us of just what sort of ugly, inhuman beings we really are throughout American history. Racial bigotry is an ugly thing, and it was never more ugly than in the South during the Civil Rights movement. Not that I would ever claim to be at perfect harmony without everyone I meet in my life, but if I choose to hate someone, it's got nothing to do because of their race, color or creed - it's because they're assholes (but that's neither here nor there)!
This film by Alan Parker (who also showed us the ugly side of Turkish human beings in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS) is loosely based on the real-life murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. After the three are reported missing, two FBI agents Rupert Anderson (played by Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (played by Willem Dafoe) are sent to investigate the incident in rural Jessup County, Mississippi. The two of them take rather completely different approaches toward their investigation: Agent Ward, a young liberal northerner, takes a direct, by-the-book approach things, while Agent Anderson, a former Mississippi sheriff himself who understands the intricacies of race relations in the South, takes a more subtle tack. The local white folks, needless to say, are less-than-cooperative and very hostile toward the FBI invading their tight-knit community; a tight-knit community where many members are secretly linked to the Ku Klux Klan, including members of the so-called town's law enforcement. The local black community, needless to say, are too scared to talk to the FBI in fear of violent retribution from the white community, which manages to happen anyway. Their terrorist violence comes in the form of many fires to churches and private homes. Even when several accused white supremacists are brought to trial, the judge is contemptibly lenient towards their sentence. Justice, of course, is served in the end when the good of the FBI prevails and those who are responsible for racial murder are sentenced (even that only comes to about ten years!). But we who know just a little bit about 20th Century American history know that such a little victory was hardly the end of the problems of racial bigotry in this country, and (frankly) still is. Today, we manage to capture more of it on video and we continue to express shock and horror that such acts can take place in this century; a century where most people are only capable of relating well to others through electronic, hand-held devices.
MISSISSIPPI BURNING, of course, makes its valid, social points by expressing not only the evil, but the good in people. However, it's hardly the solution to the big problem, even by motion picture standards. By the end of 1988, the racial incident in Howard Beach had taken place two years prior and the Rodney King Los Angeles police beating of 1991, as well as the Abner Louima police beating of 1997 were still yet-to-occur. On screen, Spike Lee would teach us to DO THE RIGHT THING only a few months later. You see, even in the 1980s, Hollywood knew how to send us a clear message every once in a while. Will we ever get the message? My ongoing pessimistic attitude toward life says that's a great, big NO! But who knows...sometimes life finds a way.
Finally, just a small, personal memory. I have an interesting memory of this film being immensely popular with very young audience members for a one that was dramatically serious. I remember all of my friends in college going to see it with eagerness and I even recall watching it on video months later with a younger girl I was dating at the time and her younger friends, as well. Rather admirable, I must say, for a generation of kids who was likely too busy being weened at the time on the spectacular action of DIE HARD and the outrageous comedy of A FISH CALLED WANDA.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Agent Ward: "We'll go after all of them! Together!"
Agent Anderson: "You wouldn't know how!"
Ward: "You're going to teach me how!"
Anderson: "You don't have the guts!"
Ward: "Not only do I have the guts I have the AUTHORITY!"