by Andrew Mooney
Mississippi Burning (1988) – Alex Parker (Dir.), Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe
Well, speaking of American Nazism… The third movie out of the hat turned out to be this late 80’s fictionalization of a murder case involving Civil Rights activists in Mississippi around 1964. Again, lovely light viewing. It’s refreshing to see young Willem Dafoe, his cut so clean, his spectacles so painfully hipster, running around flashing his FBI badge at racists and trudging through the Mississippi swamps. And then there’s Gene Hackman, who, I’m becoming increasingly convinced, has never been young. The pair skirt the line of ‘buddy cop’ cliches with almost balletic grace for the length of this intense, 2-hour examination of those on the front lives of the Civil Rights movement.
I think it’s important for me to give a little background on my understanding of US History. The Civil Rights movement was never really taught in English primary schools. We spent our days pouring over the sexual appetites of inbred rulers, queens offering cakes to starving peasants and Henry VIII’s record for the longest and bloodiest key party in monarchy history. As a nation, the only export of ours that could even hold a candle to America’s, other than our outrageous supply of Sticky Pudding, is history. We have plenty of it. And it’s crazy shit. From Roundheads to Tudors, from polyamory to incest, from incompetence to Neville Chamberlain, from international colonization to mildly apologizing for international colonization, we have a pretty long list of atrocities, both domestic and international, to cover. Thus, the efforts of great men such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis were about as well-covered and emotionally present for me as those of Gandhi. Important, historical, essential…but a world away.
So, when I came to the States and discovered things such as Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr. day, I was taken for a loop. I had so much to learn. I was dazzled by a documentary shown to me in US History class called, “Eyes on the Prize”. Specifically, I was drawn to John Lewis, a man unconcerned with fame and was far more passionate about the cause and the outcome. Basically, my respect was cultured later in life. And this was problematic because…
This class, along with all my other history classes, was taught by a white male. In fact, all of my perspective was offered by white males. I use this as an excuse for my reaction to Paul Haggis’ love-note to white-middle-class mentality that is “Crash“. When stumbling from the theater, I literally said, “Now I understand race.” I was a fucking idiot. My unabashedly liberal stroke fest that was Oberlin College helped me realize that.
Rant Number One: What I just described is what most movies are. This is the reason I detest The Help. I haven’t seen it and I won’t. I have seen Crash so I’ll talk on that. It’s so easy to Disney-fy these topics to make sure white people don’t feel too bad that they lock their doors when driving at 60 mph through ‘the rapper part of town’. These ‘challenging’ dramas are called ‘counterpoints’, but are nothing more than tools used to capitalize on our need to find any, any rationalization for our deep-seeded fear of urban culture. So, bearing that in mind, let’s talk about the movie I actually watched.
Mississippi Burning, I’d like to think, is not The Help. There is no Emma Stone, with cutely frizzed hair and oversized glasses chatting with black women. There are no ‘Hell Naws’. There are no token black comedic reliefs. There is no scene where they do the washing up and play with bubbles and… (let me reiterate that I have NOT seen The Help). Mississippi Burning has Willem Dafoe yelling about ‘Bureau Procedure’. It has burning crosses. Lynching. Exploding churches. Gene Hackman describing how his father poisoned a black man’s livestock because, “If you ain’t better than a nigger, what are you better than?” It has Michael Rooker, the Lawrence Olivier of rednecks, kicking black children in the face Ralph-Macchio-style. It has suicide, domestic abuse, ‘Jew boys’ getting shot in the face and a bunch of other fun things for the whole family!
I absolutely enjoyed every second of this movie. The acting is so engrossing, I just wanted to lick Gene Hackman’s balding head in the hope I can leach some of his talent. Dafoe as well (without the balding). I had all these jokes prepared about the Green Goblin and Lex Luther solving murders…but those assholes were too good to allow any of those to pass. Bastards. Side note: Hackman’s character’s main moniker in the film is ‘Mr. Anderson’. It is impossible not to giggle every single damn time Dafoe says, “Well, Mr. Anderson…” It even suggested the concept that perhaps this is the prequel to the Matrix, in which Agent Smith is so destroyed by what he saw from the KKK that he decided to subjugate the entirety of humanity… Or maybe that’s just me. It’s probably just me. Okay, I’ll shut up now.
Its unadulterated grittiness and violence dragged the film out of the clutches of that thematic black hole that is, “White People Solve Racism!” This movie, more than anything, is a chronicle of those that had to die to break down those social barriers. It’s about hate, its birth and its inevitable conclusion. There is a reverence, coiled in brutality, that is intent on reminding you of the cost of human life in these backwater towns down south. Where Triumph of the Will was a celebration of hate and its societal peak, this is a deconstruction and obliteration of its actual practice.
It does fall into a couple of sand traps along the way. There are barely any significant black characters in the film. It is not ‘based on a true story’, rather ‘inspired by true events’, in the fashion that Star Wars: Episode I was inspired by the true event of George Lucas taking a shit (ed: low blow). Thus, when the title cards read that these characters were sentenced to between 5 and 10 years in prison, it’s a little inconsequential. I mean, fictional prison could actually be a nasty place for all I know. It could be like Oz (the prison show on HBO, not the whimsical land beyond the rainbow)… and nobody wants that much nonconsensual cornholing. The ending is slightly too optimistic for its own good. Yay! The racists are in jail! Done and done.
One of the biggest assets this film has on its side is the presence of a Rogue’s Gallery of redneck actors. We have Brad Dourif, the voice of that gigglingly murderous doll Chucky and, of course, the blueprint of modern politics that is Grima Wormtongue. At least Wormtongue, for the backstabbing little shit that he was, could not be called a racist (well, on second thought…he was aiding a genocidal war…and he did follow a man all dressed in white who called himself a ‘wizard’… side-side note: Has anyone else noticed how silly the KKK’s ranking system actually is?). Then there’s R. Lee Ermey, who, when he isn’t calling you a ‘faggot’ and talking about the merits of rifles vs. guns and shooting vs. fun, is being threatened to have his scrotum removed with a razor blade.
Also, not to give away any spoilers, but I had to do a double take near the end of the film. When Hackman calls in his bros to crack some racist skulls against the heavy bronze balls of the law, one of the guys getting out of the car was none other than the Jigsaw Killer. You know, the dude who strapped people to chairs before forcing them to eat a horse penis before their intestines exploded and their thighs get cramped or their fingers crossed or given an uncomfortably hot coffee to drink…okay, I wasn’t really paying attention from Saws 3 through 6. The point is, when that happens in the film, you know the KKK is proper fucked. All they need is a reverse bear trap to put on their heads and…
Do not watch the Saw movies. You have better things to do with your life. Seriously.
The one other niggling (careful) annoyance is the police-procedural aspect of the plot. (Read in an exasperated voice) We have one straight-laced cop, one rogue. We’ve got the fish out of water, and the roughneck local boy. We’ve got the blah blah and the blah blah. He’s got something to prove and he’s got a score to settle. Yada yada fucking yada. Both Hackman and Dafoe do an excellent work breathing life into what could have decayed into archetypical hell. Still, Dafoe’s efforts to follow procedure, as always, are frustrated. These Mississippi folk won’t let the Federal Government tell them what to do. They have rights! They aren’t going to be intimidated by the fat cats in Washington! (Sound familiar?). So…what’s the answer? Coercion. Kidnapping. Enhanced interrogation. You cheer and clap when Hackman grabs Rooker by the nuts and makes him squeal like a pig. You laugh when they pretend to almost lynch one of the KKK jerkoffs. I feel this is problematic…
Rant Number Two. When The Dark Knight came out in theaters, like every good fanboy, I creamed myself several times. Once I had changed my pants, I got into an unexpected, brutal argument with a good friend. His theory was that The Dark Knight, this bastion of honor and justice, was a conservative propaganda film. The only point that actually made me go “Huh”, with a pensive finger upon the chin, was a specific scene. Throughout the film, the Joker is always six steps ahead of the Batman. Finally, they catch him. Then Batman smashes his head against a table. Over and over again. The audience I saw it with cheered. They cheered police brutality. I mean, don’t get me wrong…fuck that guy…but it’s the principle. It’s difficult to justify protesting Guantanamo Bay and then rushing home to catch the finale of 24. Brutality and coercion are not good. On principle. And yet, in this dramatic format, its lauded because playing by the rules don’t solve crimes. Apparently.
So…this movie is great. It’s enjoyable. Tense. Violent. It makes you think without being too didactic. The performances are top notch, including a very pre-Cohen Brothers and very not-pregnant-policewoman Frances McDormand. See it if you don’t care for the white-washing of Civil Rights History…
…Even though all the main characters are white. And the director is white. And so is the writer. And…well…
I forgot where I was going with that. Now I just feel sad.