Monday, 7 September 2015

mississippi burning

cinema history is littered with ill-advised attempts to marry hollywood genres to real life stories; films that ultimately seem exploitative or in bad taste because the sensationalist nature of genre cinema does not sit well with cold, hard reality. mississippi burning takes one of the darkest and most sickening moments in american history and turns it into a buddy-cop movie. somehow, it works.

mississippi burning follows two fbi agents, ward (dafoe) and anderson (hackman), tasked with tracking down three missing civil rights activists. ward is by-the-book and has no time for pandering to local customs. anderson is as hard-boiled as they come with brutal tactics to match, but at the same time appreciates the subtlety required in getting the right people on side. the rising tensions between the two men mirror the tensions their presence has created in the community as finding the missing activists takes on a much greater importance in an ongoing war against prejudice.

the first thing that stands out about mississippi burning is that the treatment of the black community is so extreme it almost seems like some kind of sci-fi vision of a dystopian future. it’s so horrific and so far from the society we know now (or certainly that i know now) that it’s impossible to watch this film without experiencing a growing anger towards humanity that boils into rage by the final act. that’s exactly the emotional journey agents ward and anderson go through as well, making them perfect vessels for our exploration of this troubled time.

the differences between ward and anderson are more subtle than they seem at first, meaning the combined acting talents of dafoe and hackman are absolutely essential to the piece. while ward likes to follow the rules he equally has no problem flooding the town with fbi agents to provoke a reaction, despite knowing that his actions will cause more trouble for the community before they find justice. anderson will gladly beat up suspects and use all kinds of coercion tactics to get what he wants, but is also more sensitive to the feelings of the locals, particularly frances mcdormand's character, and it’s ultimately his more subtle tactics that get them their break. dafoe and hackman add a palpable fire to this relationship and when the two men do clash the fireworks are spectacular.

there is also a really impressive supporting cast, including brad dourif, r. lee ermy, michael rooker and stephen tobolowsky as the primary antagonists. the only odd thing about the cast is the omission of any prominent black cast members. on its release in 1988 the film caused controversy for precisely this reason, because the implication of this decision was that the black community were perpetual victims who needed two white men to come in and save them from oppression. at the time, director alan parker responded to the controversy by saying that he was simply happy the issue was being talked about so much in a public forum, and this reasoning still stands today. while the facts have clearly been manipulated to tell a good story, mississippi burning remains a powerful snapshot of an oppressed community and a reminder of an injustice that should never be forgotten.

it has to be said that the political backdrop does provide an excellent setting for a cop movie. it’s a convention of the genre that the justice system will support the criminals over the hard boiled cop heroes, but when a judge gives three arsonists a suspended sentence in this film, it makes perfect sense given the environment. at the same time, this translates into the larger story, as ultimately ward and anderson are unable to bring the perpetrators to justice under local laws and have to come to a more creative solution. ultimately, it’s this inter-weaving of genre conventions and real world drama that makes mississippi burning such a great film. parker tells an entertaining story without pulling his punches when it comes to the historical reality. the result is a film that is as compelling and entertaining as it is hard-hitting.

overall, mississippi burning is an expertly crafted piece of genre filmmaking that showcases the abilities of two of hollywood’s finest actors and a director at the top of his game. it’s entertaining, harrowing and visceral all at the same time, and it deserves to be remembered as a modern classic.

mississippi burning will be released on blu-ray by second sight on 14th september 2015

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