by Pauline Kael
The director Alan Parker likes to operate in a wildly melodramatic universe of his own creation. In Mississippi Burning, which is set during the Freedom Summer of 1964, he treats Southerners the way he treated the Turks ten years ago in Midnight Express. And he twists facts here as he did there, with the same apparent objective: to come up with garish forms of violence. We see the white Southerners burning and beating and lynching, but Parker isn’t content with that. He wants to give the audience violence it can cheer. A black F.B.I man is introduced so he can threaten to castrate a white man, and the F.B.I strings up a suspected Klansman to scare him into testifying against his buddies. Then, there are the inventions that jack up the plot. A deputy sheriff (Brad Dourif) brutally beats his tiny wife (Frances McDormand) while his K.K.K. pals watch to make sure he does a thorough job. She has succumbed to the overtures of an F.B.I. man (Gene Hackman) and told him where the bodies of three missing civil-rights workers were to be found. (Actually, the F.B.I. informant was a man, and he was given a thirty-thousand-dollar reward for his help.) The entire movie hinges on the ploy that the F.B.I. couldn’t stop the K.K.K. from its terrorism against blacks until it swung over to vigilante tactics. And we’re put in the position of applauding the F.B.I.’s dirtiest forms of intimidation. This cheap gimmick undercuts the whole civil-rights subject; it validates the terrorist methods of the Klan.
When black people here are on a march, they look withdrawn, dead-eyed, blank; there’s no elation or glory in their progress down the street. The Civil Rights Act had just been passed in the Senate, and during that Freedom Summer, when roughly a thousand students and activists arrived in Mississippi to set up schools and register blacks to vote, blacks themselves were busy in the fight for desegregation; they were holding rallies, staging protests, and forming picket lines. They were training themselves to take verbal and physical abuse without being provoked to violence. In the movie, the blacks are sheeplike and frightened; they seem totally unprepared. The events here took place eight and a half years after Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, but Alan Parker is essentially putting blacks at the back again. The picture opens with a fictionalized recreation of the murder of the three civil-rights workers— James Chaney, the local black who was working for core, and two young Jewish activists from up North, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—who were in their station wagon and were stopped by Ku Klux Klansmen and lawmen. Chaney was driving; in the movie, he has been replaced at the wheel by one of the whites. It’s a small detail, but the details add up to a civil-rights movie in which blacks don’t do much of anything except inspire pity and sympathy in the two F.B.I. men (Hackman and Willem Dafoe) who are the heroes.
Hackman’s Anderson and Dafoe’s Ward arrive in the small town where the three men were last seen; their mission is to find out what happened to them. Anderson is a burly, big Mississippian who grew up dirt poor and knows that for whites to feel that they’re better than blacks may be the only point of pride they’ve got. He understands, but it disgusts him. He’s a complicated, lonely man who no longer feels at home in the South yet isn’t at home with Northerners, either. (Actually, Hackman, a Midwesterner, had never been in the Deep South before, but you wouldn’t guess it from his performance.) The pale, bespectacled Ward, who is in charge of the investigation, looks small next to Anderson. He’s formal, conscientious, and deeply courteous. A Harvard Law School man who was at the Department of Justice before joining the Bureau, he represents the idealism of the Kennedy era—he’s brave and dedicated, but rigid.
The man has no common sense. And he inadvertently sets off a brief war between the Bureau and the Klan.
When the local people, black and white alike, won’t tell Ward anything, he thinks the answer is to bring in more agents, and after he’s got a huge manhunt going and still has no results he brings in Naval Reserves. The K.K.K. fights the invasion by attacking black people and burning their churches. Anderson, who knows how to nose around town and pick up leads, keeps arguing with Ward, showing him that he’s making the situation worse. At one point, they face off as if they were going to kill each other, and the movie turns into a bad imitation of a Western. But what’s involved in the running battle between the two is the central cheat of the movie. Parker, working from a script by Chris Gerolmo (which he says he rewrote), sets up Dafoe’s Ward as a high-principled official with no resourcefulness or flexibility or canniness, and says that he represents the only legal way to tackle the problems. The only alternative, according to Parker, is the illegal, underhanded methods that Anderson insists must be used. And, of course, Anderson—an uncommon common man, whom Hackman plays with humor and buried rage—is the man we identify with. Hackman draws us to him; he’s the star here—he’s vivid. And he’s the spokesman for brutality. There isn’t even a whisper of a suggestion that Anderson may get any undue satisfaction from the brutal methods that Ward, recognizing his own defeat, finally allows him to employ. No—they’re employed righteously, for Biblical vengeance. (The common man knows what those gents from Harvard Law are too educated to understand.) Parker uses the civil-rights movement to make a wham-bam Charles Bronson movie, and, from his blithe public statements, he seems unaware that this could be thought morally repugnant.
He justifies his small inventions and his big, crude ones in terms of fiscal responsibility to his backers. Presumably, the audience needs a whomp in the gut every two minutes. But if it does, that’s because whomping is Parker’s basic way of reaching people, and he sets up a pattern. He pounds you, in scenes like the one of the K.K.K., armed with clubs, gathering outside a church in which black people are singing. He won’t let go of effects like the lowing of cows in a barn that’s been set on fire. (He takes the title very literally; the sets keep going up in flames.) Yet, despite the heaviness of Mississippi Burning, it doesn’t necessarily stay with you— it’s too mechanical, too inexpressive. (There are exceptions: a night shot of the station wagon, with the three young men, coming over a wavy, hilly road, followed by two cars and a truck with no lights; the lovely shades of regret in some of Hackman’s scenes with Frances McDormand; the cheeriness of the actress Park Overall’s remarks in the town beauty parlor.) Parker is a slicker—a man with talent and technique but without a sustaining sensibility. Each time I heard the pulsating music start working me up for the next bout of violence, I dreaded what was coming. The manipulation got to me, all right, but the only emotion I felt was hatred of the movie.
The New Yorker, December 26, 1988