Mississippi Burning

Year: 1988
Production Co: Orion Pictures Corporation
Director: Alan Parker
Cast: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand, Stephen Tobolowsky, R Lee Ermey, Michael Rooker, Pruitt Taylor Vince
An issues movies skewering the racism inherent in the American deep south in the 1960s, and refreshingly honest and intelligent as well, not just a treatise on the evil slob redneck white and the gentle, kind-hearted, oppressed blacks.

As in most racist subcultures, the heads of the organisation (portrayed here by articulate businessmen Stephen Tobolowsky) have motives that can almost be mistaken as admirable, not mired in hatred but with a genuine belief that racial segregation is not just beneficial to society but God's will.

A similar theme was investigated in the more recent This is England, where the figureheads of the National Front are honest, God-fearing men who wouldn't be caught dead smashing up a Pakistani shop or beating up Indian kids playing football. It just so happens that sort of society attracts the sort of violent, disenfranchised men who do behave like that.

It's also the story of different ends justifying the means. Two FBI agents, the buttoned-down pencil pusher Ward (Dafoe) and the old school results man who's from the area, Anderson (Hackman), travel to the sweltering, racist climes of Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of three young civil rights activists.

Assuming or hoping those affected will welcome him with open arms, Ward is continually frustrated in his investigation and in the local courts, hardly realising that an upstart northerner poking his nose in is causing the violent reprisals against the black community, causing them to clam up further for fear of retribution by the thugs that run after dark and those that wield power by day.

Also frustrated is Anderson, who stands by watching Ward throw more money and men at the problem while the investigation goes nowhere. He becomes deeply connected to the outcome by befriending the sensitive young salon owner (McDormand), married to one of the brutes who stand at the point of the racist attitude of the townspeople and who will pay for her friendship with him.

Finally lashing out, Anderson demands to be allowed to operate his way, and justice starts to edge its way in, often at the end of a blunt instrument.

Director Parker is an interesting craftsman, an Englishman who's worked across genres, from the worthy drama to the genre thriller (such as Angel Heart) and who has an innate understanding of the complicated American psyche.

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