Alan Parker‘s Mississippi Burning gets an awful lot wrong about the way things really were in Mississippi in 1964. I’ve read, for example, that African Americans did a lot more than sing hymns and watch their churches burn. We all know that Parker and screenwriter Chris Gerolmo mangled the history of the FBI’s hunt for the killers of three Civil Rights workers (Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman). Their coup de grace was having the FBI agent heroes, played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, turn into Dirty Harry-style vigilantes in Act Three, bringing the guilty yokels to justice by playing rough games and faking them out. Pauline Kael called it “a Charles Bronson movie.”
And I’ve never cared that much. Very few have, I suspect. I’ve always had a soft spot for Mississippi Burning for various reasons — the polish of it, Hackman’s performance (particularly his scenes with Frances McDormand), Peter Biziou‘s cinematography, Gerry Hambling‘s editing, the percussive rumble of Trevor Jones‘ music, da coolness. But especially Parker and Gerolmo’s bullshit plot. Because the lies they came up with are emotionally satisfying, and that’s always the bottom line.
I agree with Gore Vidal‘s old line that “the ends never justify the means because there are no ends, only means” and yet it feels very fulfilling to see vigilante tactics used against racist murderers. Especially after watching Hackman and Dafoe go through weeks of fruitless investigating while the guilty crackers smirk and drink cream soda and chew tobacco.
If audiences feel that a film is delivering real emotional justice, they’ll always tolerate mistakes and oversights. Even lies. That’s what happened here.
The above clip of Hackman and McDormand exchanging silent words or more precisely of McDormand passing along important new information is one of the best scenes Parker ever shot.