Burning Bright and Fierce
In the first eight weeks of its limited release, the passionately made and violence-swathed Mississippi Burning (1988), which expanded into theatres nationwide 27 years ago today, drew powerful reactions both pro and con. The naysayers decried the lack of strong characterizations for the African Americans caught up in the strife generated by the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, choosing instead to focus on two fictional white FBI agents (native Southerner Gene Hackman paired with straitlaced out-of-towner Willem Dafoe) and their ultimate adoption of brutal retaliatory violence and legally questionable strategies against the corrupt local officials and Klan members. In her Los Angeles Times review, Sheila Benson wrote: "[Director Alan] Parker has said that Mississippi Burning isn't about the civil rights movement, but that's palaver. It allows Parker and the film's marketing department free rein: To have the film be given the respect due to the memories of the three murdered civil rights workers (whose racial and ethnic makeup the film's actors mirror), while letting them cry fiction on the other hand, and invent when they please. The argument that film needn't be perfectly congruent with facts, that it can have room to soar free, to deal in symbols and metaphors is certainly reasonable. However, the victories which are at the heart of Mississippi Burning weren't won by razor-wielding redneck FBI agents with their hearts in the right places; to suggest that they were is simplistic and insulting to the hundreds of Southern blacks who clung to nonviolence in the face of assault. Those young people, the very ones who created the civil rights movement, are absent from the film, whose only black Mississippians are victims, hymn-singers and noble children.” On the other side of the debate, Roger Ebert raved in the Chicago Sun-Times: “No other movie I’ve seen captures so forcefully the look, the feel, the very smell, of racism. We can feel how sexy their hatred feels to the racists in this movie, how it replaces other entertainments, how it compensates for their sense of worthlessness. And we can feel something breaking free, the fresh air rushing in, when the back of that racism is broken. Apart from its pure entertainment value – this is the best American crime movie in years – it is an important statement about a time and a condition that should not be forgotten.” Time’s Richard Schickel, weighing the film’s intentions against how it was put together, concluded down the middle that “narrow historical criticism somehow seems irrelevant to a movie that so powerfully reanimates the past for the best of reasons: to inform the spirit of today and possibly tomorrow.” Mississippi Burning scored big with a group not normally known for its firebrand choices, the National Board of Review, which awarded it honors for the year’s Best Picture, Director, Actor (Hackman) and Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand). Those four categorical inclusions contended again when Academy Award® nominations were announced on February 15, adding three other areas of competition: Film Editing, Sound and the one for which the film captured a statuette: Best Cinematography by Peter Biziou, which The New York Times’ Vincent Canby considered “so evocative that, I suspect, one could hear dogs barking in the distance, freight trains passing in the night and tree toads and crickets even without a soundtrack.” Indeed, then in theatres and now on Twilight Time’s sizzling hi-def Blu-ray with a detailed Alan Parker Audio Commentary, Mississippi Burning evokes visceral emotions and pungent reactions, particularly in our current era of so-called enlightened diversity.