Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mississippi Burning

I seem to forever be one movie behind when I review, always reviewing the film before the film I just finished. Well, I'm gonna play catch-up with this film, because it offers so very little. Mississippi Burning, the 1988 film concerning the actual murders of three civil rights workers in 1964, aims to offer up an intense look at race relations by way of a frightening look into our recent past, but instead plays like a Hollywood-ized thriller that only gets its "deeper" meaning out in chucks of stilted dialogue and tries to wow us for the other hour and half.

In the film, Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman play FBI agents who will stop at nothing to find and arrest the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the murders. Dafoe plays the role of Not-Racist White Guy, the stalwart young hero who sits in the segregated sections meant for blacks, openly speaks in the midst of Klan members about their bigotry. And what better foil for Not-Racist White Guy than Initially Racist White Man Who Overcomes Bigotry Just 'Cause (also known as the "John Wayne in The Searchers" award). Hackman, to his credit, plays the IRWMWOBJC to a T, but his character seems to turn against bigotry out of spite for the KKK members, and while I don't look a gift horse in the mouth it rings hollow.

Because this is Hollywood, our heroes cannot deal with racism in its subtle, insidious form. Oh no. Now, you probably know Mississippi to be one of the more violently racist states during the period, but what you probably didn't know is that Mississippi is officially the worst place ever in the history of racism. The KKK members, some of whom are cops, are so racist that they threaten the FBI officers' lives. Never mind the fact that such an admission alone is grounds for a federal case, Dafoe and Hackman decide instead to wait it out while more black people are killed, because ending a killing spree comes second to-hey, look at that explosion!!

Yes, just as cars exploded left and right in the misogynistic The Last Boy Scout, so too do houses explode in Mississippi Burning. I assumed the title alluded to broiling racial tensions spilling out into a heat wave of violence that threatened to consume the South, but actually they meant literal fire. Damn me and my fancy college-boy type brain; that's what I get for thinking.

Eventually the brave FBI agents, all of whom hate racism just as much as our NRWG because they wear suits and men in suits are simply too fancy to be racist, swoop into the town and capture the KKK members using terror tactics. So, let me get this straight: at the beginning the KKK admits to their crimes and makes death threats to the FBI to their faces, but that's not enough for a trial. However, using flagrantly illegal practices to ensnare targets who aren't even hiding in the first place will mean swift and harsh convictions for those pillow-headed twerps. I could use a KKK hood right now, as a matter of fact. So I could soak up the tears of rage.

The only thing that remotely redeems this film is Dafoe and Frances McDormand. Dafoe has to play a ridiculous, inaccurate and manipulative role, but he really gives a good go at it. McDormand however, is the saving grace of the film. The abused wife of one of the Klan members, she offers up the film's only bit of subtlety as she tackles both issues of racial prejudices and spousal abuse. McDormand was nominated for an Oscar for the film and it was richly deserved.

The rest of it, however, is a wash. It's typical Hollywood Big Issue stuff, in that it entirely skirts dealing with the issue in question to reap the rewards of cheap exploitation. I know it's hard to get racism in film right, but why do we have to sit through all of these Oscar-baiting masturbatory exercises in one that actually works?

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