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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Burning’ Looks Back in Anger

Times Film Critic

Alan Parker’s “Mississippi Burning” (Cinerama Dome, UA Coronet) does exactly what he wants it to do. It moves us to outrage and horror as it takes us back 24 years to the brave and dangerous dawnings of civil rights activism in Mississippi, the most entrenched segregationist state in the South.

It is fiction patterned on tragic fact, the murder of three young civil rights workers, two white Northerners, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and one Southern black, James Chaney, outside Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964.

It is this nighttime killing with which Parker opens his film, point-blank; an excruciating scene, since an entire audience knows its outcome and can only endure anxiously until it’s over. And if, after “Midnight Express” or “Angel Heart,” you know Parker’s flair for violence and over-the-top melodrama, the relative discretion of the scene--far less than the grisly reality of the three murders, especially Chaney’s--is a blessing.

“Mississippi Burning’s” most powerful achievement is its creation of time and place, done so pungently that the screen never seems free of the threat of danger.

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Ultimately it makes the film a shattering experience, particularly for audiences too young to remember the period, or for those of us who knew it, like Vietnam, only from our television screen, from newspapers or from books. Parker makes sure you didn’t have to have been in Jessup County to absorb its mood; like kerosene soaking a rag, it permeates every frame of his film.

He captures Mississippi up close and off-guard: its faces, aggrieved, resentful, brimming with hate or blandly, chillingly cheerful. A big-bellied, genial sheriff, who asks FBI agents Anderson and Ward if they are from the “Federal Bureau of Integration.” He shows the far-reaching, disastrous effects of an FBI agent’s misguided act: Walking to the Colored section of a restaurant and speaking to one of the men eating there. And there are flashes of the undeniable charm of the South as well, a waitress answering a question about the food in her fly-specked joint says, “We’re not full for nuthin’, sugar,” pitching her reply somewhere between friendliness and innuendo.

Against this real frieze of place and character, screenwriter Chris Gerolmo (“Miles From Home”) has concocted a painfully ordinary good-cop/bad-cop scenario. This time they are FBI agents, sent with express orders to solve these disappearances. They are played--exquisitely--by Gene Hackman as Southern ex-sheriff Anderson and Willem Dafoe, as his by-the-books but experienced superior, Ward.

Gerolmo also creates a fictional series of meetings between divorced Southerner Hackman and the equally Southern wife of a sheriff’s deputy whom Hackman patiently woos for her information. They are brilliantly performed; a matter of almost subliminal inferences and subtly understood exchanges between Hackman and Frances McDormand, playing the wife of slimy Deputy Pell (Brad Dourif.) But it’s invention all the same.

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Wrangling continually, representing the opposite poles of pragmatism and idealism, Hackman and Dafoe dig and probe and cross-question trying to get a toehold on the truth. And stirred up by their presence, the KKK’s cross burnings and firebombings are redoubled.

Finally, after hideous Klan-led attacks, after beatings and lynchings and attacks on black children, Hackman persuades Dafoe, in effect, that fascism in opposition to racism is no crime, and he embarks on a redneck’s repertoire of retaliation and intimidation. It includes a black FBI agent, brought in to wring information from a white town official, with a spot of kidnaping and threats. The scene’s dramatic high point, the agent’s account of a castration of a young black man by a Klansman, is one of the picture’s most sobering moments, but it might be interesting to remember that, historically, the only two blacks in the Bureau at that time were the chauffeur and the maid employed by J. Edgar Hoover. (Audiences may also wince to notice that it’s only after a white woman is endangered that Hackman is moved to action.)

Hackman’s tactics are also at the heart of the film’s wrong turn. 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. And in that respect, “Mississippi Burning” is an achievement. It has not exaggerated the horror of that time, when Mississippi was, in effect, a terrorist state, its laws and its bigotry welded together, seemingly permanently.

(For an exhaustive overview, read “We Are Not Afraid,” by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, a meticulously documented nonfiction account of the murders, the investigations and the climate of the day.)

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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. Nowhere here will you find black leaders or the eloquence, say, of Mississippi CORE chief David Dennis’ eulogy for James Chaney, as passionate and persuasive a piece of Americana as the Sacco-Vanzetti letters.

In the ways of Hollywood, “Mississippi Burning” will probably stand as the film on this subject. In spite of its mortifying omissions, the story is unlikely to be done again. What we have to be grateful for is the film’s cumulative power, its use of the soaring songs of the time, its catalogue of faces--both black and white--its fire-lit vision of a feudal hell.

If you listen closely to the dialogue, it’s clear that Parker’s respect for this almost holy period of American struggle is what has expanded upon a pretty pedestrian script, has made it a film of notable images and performances. Yet, given the period, it is still unequal to its subject.

‘MISSISSIPPI BURNING’

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An Orion Pictures release of a Frederick Zollo production of an Alan Parker film. Producers Zollo, Robert F. Colesberry. Director Parker. Written by Chris Gerolmo. Camera Peter Biziou. Editor Gerry Hambling. Production designers Philip Harrison, Geoffrey Kirkland. Art director John Willett, set decorator Jim Erickson. Sound Danny Michael. Costumes Aude Bronson Howard. Original music Trevor Jones. With Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, Gailard Sartain, Stephen Tobolowsky, Michael Rooker, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Badja Djola, Kevin Dunn.

Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).


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