Mississippi Burning (1988)

(On TV, March 2017) Issues-based thrillers aren’t always easy to watch, and there are certainly enough tough moments in Mississippi Burning to uphold this rule of thumb. But it’s also a thriller with a muscular anti-racism message that is also comforting given the atrocities portrayed in the film. The story of two FBI agents investigating the murder of three civil rights activists in rural Mississippi, this is a movie that pulls no punches in portraying the often-unbelievable racism of barely half a century ago. Quite a few buildings burn here, and the constant abuse suffered by the black characters is nothing short of revolting. While the film is certainly problematic in its white-saviour narrative, it’s also curiously frank in the way it embraces this aspect of itself: threatening, torturing and arresting unrepentant KKK members is the next best thing to punching a Nazi in the face in American cinema wish fulfillment, and Mississippi Burning certainly embraces this aggressive approach to the problem. Gene Hackman truly stars as a veteran FBI agent whose folksy bonhomie barely conceals a tough-and-violent approach whenever the chips are down. Contrasting him is Willem Defoe is a curiously straitlaced role as a far more by-the-book supervisor who nonetheless gets to let his wilder instincts run free in the last act of the film. Frances McDormand also has a good turn as an acquiescent housewife who nonetheless gets a few shots in. Far more interesting than the “social issues drama” moniker would suggest, Mississippi Burning turns into a vengeful police thriller toward the end, with satisfying justice being delivered in spades. The relationship to the true events that inspired the story is incidental, the black characters definitely taking second place to the white protagonists but, in the end, it makes for curiously compelling cinema. This being said, Mississippi Burning is exactly the kind of film that other effective anti-racism movies such as The Help are meant to complement: it’s part of the story, but not all of it.

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