Mississippi Burning (1988)

Cinematography Peter Biziou
Directed by Alan Parker

Two FBI agents investigating the murder of civil rights workers during the 60s seek to breach the conspiracy of silence in a small Southern town where segregation divides black and white. The younger agent trained in FBI school runs up against the small town ways of his former Sheriff partner.


Sometimes rules need to be broken 9/10

14 April 2002 | by The_Wood (United States) – See all my reviews

Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning is an unflinching look at racism in the South. This is a very difficult movie to watch, but it is well worth it, and a reminder of past events — events that should never be forgotten. Gene Hackman gives a power-house of a performance, ripping up the screen in every scene. The film has a strong supporting cast as well, including the always dynamic Michael Rooker.

Many have complained about the death-wish like final act, but the final results are completely called for and necessary.


Where does hatred come from?

Author: Dan Grant (dan.grant@bell.ca) from Toronto, Ontario
18 July 1999

Where? Where does racism come from? How can one race feel superior to another? Are we born with it? No.

Do we become it on our own? Maybe? Or is it perhaps that we are taught it? There is a small scene in Mississippi Burning that is just as powerful as any Gene Hackman speech or any violent montage to gospel music that is in this film. There is a rally at a park with the head of the KKK ( without his hood ) telling thousands of people that have gathered that he loves being white. He loves the fact that Mississippi is segregated. And in the crowd the camera pans across and shows three year old kids smiling and cheering as gleefully and loudly as their parent’s are. It is haunting.


This film is bit like JFK in a way. It is not an absolute recreation of the events that took place in 1964, but it is a film that tells a true story and then adds a bit of fiction to make it more interesting for a mass audience. For example, the case was not cracked by Mr. Anderson fooling around with Pell’s wife. But that is besides the point, the point being that this film is mesmerizing. Everything from its direction, cinematography, acting, writing and music, it is the best film of 1988. And having Rain Man take most of the major awards is really quite sad. Because Mississippi Burning is much more ambitious, important and well done. Rain Man is a very good film and I will even go as far as to say that Hoffman is the only one that deserved to win best actor just as much as Hackman did. But 1988 was a bad year for the rest of the Oscars. Anyway…


I have been edgy before. Boyz and the Hood did that to me, but this film makes me angry. It makes me want to jump back into 1964 and try to do something to stop this. The film is that strong at showing us how terrible and pointless racism is. And in order to make this film work, there has to be strong elements in all areas. But for me, what really made me feel the things that I did is the actors that played their roles.

Hackman is brilliant. He gives the performance of a lifetime and it is his anger that gives him his edge. He sees things differently than Mr. Ward does and that sometimes makes them bump heads with each other. But they ultimately have the same goal in mind. Just different ways of achieving that goal. Dafoe is great as well, but it is the supporting cast that really makes this film. From Dourif to R. Lee Ermey to Stephen Tobolwolski, these characters are richly portrayed by the actors that play them.


There is however one actor in particular that I wanted to touch on and that is Michael Rooker. He plays Frank, the nastiest, meanest, no conscience, negro hating person that I think I have ever seen on film. I don’t know where his anger comes from, but he is the kind of character that you can imagine had a violent father that drank too much and always told stories about how bad the black man was. When Rooker is on screen you listen. You pay attention to what he is saying and doing. And my hatred of him was one of my favourite parts of the film.

Mississippi Burning shows us how strange people are when it comes to racism. The characters in this film don’t know why they hate the way they do, they just know that they do. And they are powerless to stop themselves. What happened to the three civil rights workers was a disgrace and a tragedy. But not just because three boys were murdered, but because no one knows why they were murdered,besides racism that is. Why did they have to die? Because they were a different colour of skin? Because they were Jewish? It really doesn’t make any sense.


Mississippi Burning is one of the best films I have ever seen. It is important and it is entertaining. If you haven’t seen it, do so just for the scene with Mr. Anderson and Deputy Pell at the barber shop. That is worth the price of the rental alone. But for a really important film that has something to say, this is one of the best.

It broke my heart

Author: Kristine (kristinedrama14@msn.com) from Chicago, Illinois
31 December 2005

Not saying this isn’t an excellent film, it is just bluntly honest. I remember in English class in high school, we were learning about racism in the 60’s, and how horrible it was. The worst part was that I am from a very racist town, unfortunately, and watching the beginning of the film terrified me because I felt like this world hadn’t changed since I felt like I was living that film. Being one voice sometimes can either be helpful or get you into a lot of trouble.


I didn’t want to see this film again because of the awful situations I saw or heard of. Now, I am out on my own, and I had the chance to see the movie once again, and felt that I could see it. It’s a terrific and very powerful movie that can get anyone to cry unbearably. It’s not just the actors, but Gene and William’s characters, I wanted to be just like them, they were able to stand up even though the many times of being knocked down and caring so much just to try to in some way save that town.

I honestly feel that everyone should see this movie, it can change your life or make you look around and want to change things. I know this comment feels more like a lecture than a comment, but that’s how much this movie got to me. I think we all can do something right in this world, it’s just a matter or standing up. Even if this film isn’t historically accurate, it’s accurate enough to see how people treat other people. Hopefully, we will have a better future for generations to come.



Dynamite in Celluloid Form.

Author: tfrizzell from United States
20 January 2003

A highly charged box of fireworks is the best way to describe “Mississippi Burning”. It is 1964 and the Civil Rights Movement is tearing apart many areas in the deep south. Mississippi is definitely the hottest spot of all as the entire state seems to be split between whites and African Americans. After some white Civil Rights activists disappear, the FBI is called in to investigate (Oscar-nominee Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe). Naturally the sheriff’s department is difficult to say the least and it appears that it may have even had a part in the apparent murders. Frances McDormand (Oscar-nominated) proved that she was a truly gifted actress as the wife of one of the local deputies (an evil Brad Dourif). Alan Parker’s smart Oscar-nominated direction and the Oscar-winning cinematography give the film a tense feel that leaves its audience visibly shaken during and after its running time. A great achievement. Easily one of the finest films of the 1980s. 5 stars out of 5.


1964 – The year America was at war with itself!

Author: faraaj-1 (faraajqureshi2401@gmail.com) from Sydney, Australia
6 September 2006

1964 – The year America was at war with itself! Thats a pretty good tag-line. The promotion for this film seemed to pitch it as a thriller or a buddy movie. It is neither. This is a very mature investigation of a racist Mississippi town where the brutal murder of three civil rights activists took place in 1964. The film is inspired by real-life events.

Dafoe and Hackman play the two FBI agents sent to investigate. Their differing styles of pursuing the case and Dafoe’s belated admiration for Hackman’s “method’s” is an interesting layer of flesh added to the structure of the film.


You will see some really nasty racist characters played by familiar faces like Brad Dourif, Lee Ermey and an especially violent Michael Rooker. All are excellent. Frances McDormand really steals the movie as the wife of racist Dourif.

This film is far more intelligent than some of the Stanley Kramer movies of the 60’s which dealt with racism. It does not shy away from showing the seriousness (and sickness) of the racial mindset without being excessively preachy. It is in fact very watchable – largely due to a colorful and humorous Hackman whose character was himself a Mississippi small-town Sheriff at one time and understands the pitfalls of the Hoover boys going in all guns blazing.

Highly recommended!


Well executed,gripping story.

Author: SmileysWorld from United States
14 July 2004

This film is a good,though not flawless representative of the turbulent 1960’s south.The character representation is good,though taken to a bit of an extreme in places.Gene Hackman gives another knockout performance here,as he does always as does Willem Dafoe.The cast is great,though Gailard Sartain was a surprising choice as Sheriff Stuckey, given his penchant for appearing in the worst of films.It is based on a true story,and as we all know,true stories are never presented to perfection.It is,however,presented as well as it can be.This is a very gripping,edge of your seat film,and very well done.


These events bad enough without revisionism…

Author: donny-31 from Southeastern United States
29 May 2005
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I am from Mississippi. I lived through these times. Secretly, I did things to help in the voter-registration of Black folks; things you could get killed for, in those days. I know whereof I speak.

Therefore, let me say this: the events this film seeks to depict were bad enough without any inventions. But invent they did. Every local Black person in this movie is noble and a great singer. Their buildings, however, would lead you to believe they couldn’t put tin on a roof straight.


Why try to improve on facts? Every White person depicted in this film is an idiot. Out-houses in the sixties? KKK ruling the roost in an entire town?

Where are the rich, educated, “landed gentry” who were behind all this violence, encouraging the rednecks with nods and winks? Not in this movie. But I know they exist, because I know some of them…a few who are still living. Mostly it is their children I know, who still feel the same way about Blacks, and still do the same encouraging of White trash.

This film does not show how things really were. It seeks to make things look even worse, to people who don’t know any better. It is a terrible story, with moments of good acting from many of the stars. It is the script and the direction that are awful.

What you see in this movie is not true. The truth is far worse.


Maybe a bit too much of a film but still enjoyable

Author: bob the moo from United Kingdom
7 December 2003

When three young civil rights workers (two white and one black) going missing in the deep south of America, the FBI send two agents in to investigate. Liberal young agent Ward and cynical local agent Anderson both approach the case in different ways, however both come up against a wall of silence and racism which seems to go all the way through the community, making their task near impossible.

What do I mean when I say this is a bit too much of a film? Well, the issues, history and settings here are all semi-factual and therefore should be quite an interesting film that attacks the heart. Instead however, it is a thriller type film – and this becomes more and more evident as it goes on.


The final 30 minutes set aside themes and discussion and go right for a thriller climax with enjoyable touches. However it does lose sight of the issues, although, in fairness, it didn’t have too good a grasp on them in the first place.

The film never really sets out to do much more than paint the community as racist – and it does it rather too easily. All the white racists are painted as inbred and monstrous (I’m not complaining!) while the black characters are all pretty much a silent group of extras. I understand why the film did it this way, as to allow development of characters on both sides would have caused the thriller side of it to become baggier and less effective. As it is, the broad strokes still work because I don’t think many of us need to really be convinced that such racism is tolerable: it’s easier just to cut out the debate in a thriller.


The plot is pretty good and does paint the black situation pretty well. It works best as a thriller though and early attempts to show the divide and so on are slowly moved to the back burner in favour of thriller touches. Aside from a total lack of black characters and a tendency just to pigeon hole the white characters, the cast do a reasonable job, with plenty of well known faces. Dafoe is good in the lead, despite being a little too wide-eyed for a FBI agent in charge of a major case. Also, watching it now, it’s funny at times because he sounds very like Agent Smith when he says `Mr Anderson’. Hackman overplays to good effect and he steals almost every scene he is in, although his romancing of McDormand is a little drawn out. The support cast includes some reasonable turns from well-known faces including Dourif, Ermey and Tobolowsky.


Overall this film has a reputation for being a quite powerful issue film. However it reality it is more a thriller which uses this setting of racial hatred as it’s background and driver, rather than looking into it as a debate. In fairness, it doesn’t suffer for this and is actually an enjoyable film, which also serves as a reminder of a very common situation only a few short years ago.

it didn’t really happen like this

Author: Lee Eisenberg (lee.eisenberg.pdx@gmail.com) from Portland, Oregon, USA
29 July 2005

The recent belated conviction of Edgar Ray Killen (wouldn’t you say that it’s appropriate that he has “kill” in his last name?) brings to mind the story that inspired “Mississippi Burning”. It’s the story of how a group of Ku Klux Klan members murdered civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964.


The movie portrays the murders, but FBI agents Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) are made up. It turns out that the FBI bribed one of the murderers to rat on the other two, and all the while the FBI was tapping Schwerner’s father’s phone to see if he was a Communist.

So, they played with the facts. Hollywood often does that. Either way, “Mississippi Burning” still is a good movie, reminding us of a time in our country’s history when we were about to explode.


Nice drama, conjectural history.

Author: Robert J. Maxwell (rmax304823@yahoo.com) from Deming, New Mexico, USA
13 April 2007
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Willem DaFoe is a by-the-book FBI investigator and is assisted by ex-Southern-sheriff Gene Hackman in the real-life inquiry into the deaths of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. The three kids disappeared. No one, black or white, is willing to cooperate with the “Hoover boys” that poke around in the small town’s business. The blacks won’t cooperate because they’re afraid, the whites for more obvious reasons. And some less obvious ones. As the clued-in Hackman puts it, “They have to live here long after we’re packed up and gone.”


Just about every character is a stereotype that’s played out like a card in a hand of bridge. The head of the local Ku Klux Klan, who calls himself “a local businessman” is a balding nincompoop who hates not just blacks but Papists and Jews and probably Brobdignagians. He doesn’t have a family. Not even a dog or a cat as far as we can tell. The other heavies, including the prototypical redneck Michael Rooker with his frozen sneer, don’t have families either, except for Deputy Brad Dourif, who has a wife. But he only has a wife so that the movie can show us that not all Southern whites are murdering racists. Some are sweet and lovable and attractive, in the way that Carol Burnett is attractive, and, as just about sublimely played by Frances McDormand, are so haunted by distaste for these illegal caste-ridden shenanigans that she’s able and willing to squeal to Gene Hackman’s FBI agent about the murders. That indiscretion gets her clobbered.


The performances are all good and some are splendid. Hackman could not be better. Every move he makes, every line of dialog, carries weight. DaFoe’s character is less colorfully delineated. McDormand is outstanding, and so are Rooker, Dourif, and the guy who plays the KKK head. (What a trio of villains.) The tobacco-chewing Sheriff is great in a small supporting role.

When the FBI is stretched to its official limits without results, Hackman is given license to use his own methods. Enter two unofficial FBI heavies. One is a balding red-head with bulging eyes who has since made a career out of playing serial murderers. The other is a huge black guy with an ominous and resonant baritone who threatens to castrate the Mayor unless he spills the beans, which the Mayor does, leading to almost all the desired convictions.


The direction is tasteful. When the decomposing corpses are uncovered, it’s in long shot. When Dourif beats hell out of McDormand, we only get a few introductory blows before the cut, just so we know what’s going to happen next.

Location shooting is evocative. It’s a convincing small Southern town shimmering in the summer heat. Most “Southern” scene — the silent guy on the Choctaw reservations who is carving up catfish. The characters, although they may as well carry sandwich boards advertising their function in the script, are pretty well drawn.


If there’s a problem with the film it’s that it is laid out like a dramatic movie in the usual form of rising climaxes. The payoffs towards the end simply don’t fit in with the otherwise realistic depiction of events. I did not for a moment believe that undercover FBI agents were brought in to kidnap the Mayor and threaten to cut off his family jewels. That belongs to a movie script, or to some black hole of a CIA prison in Bulgaria, not to a narrative that purports to be based on an historic event.

The final impression the film leaves you with is how surprisingly easy it is for a deeply felt and thoroughly entrenched set of values to change so quickly. A generation has passed, only a generation, since the governor of Mississippi’s neighboring state stood in the doorway of the university and proclaimed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”


The situation displayed here, in 1964, isn’t perfect now. Nothing is perfect. But it’s a hell of a lot better than it was then. This is actually a curiously mixed blessing. It leaves Southern white people with still another defeat that they must get over. And it leaves blacks with a great deal of anti-white resentment that has no place to go.



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