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‘Mississippi Burning’ (R)By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 09, 1988
"Mississippi Burning" speeds down the complicated, painful path of civil rights in search of a good thriller.
Surprisingly, it finds it -- right there among the shacks and chicken coops, on Main Street, Mississippi, and in those dark backwaters where the Klan takes care of its own and the bodies of three slain civil rights workers lie buried.
But also submerged with those workers are complexity, subtlety and artistic lighthandedness.
Alan ("Angel Heart") Parker's FBI manhunt, a fictionalized account of a real-life murder case, churns up not bodies or just-the-facts but a western, a buddy flick (Gene Hackman meets Willem Dafoe) and the sort of Hollywood-movie triumph that blacks could have used more of during -- and since -- that era.
Parker and screenwriter Chris Gerolmo tack up a frontier town, where the white hats wear dark suits (J. Edgar Hoover's dress code), the black hats wear white sheets but real people must head west someplace. G-pokes Alan Ward (the arresting Dafoe) and Rupert Anderson (a collected, wisecracking Hackman) ride into town on their liberal high horse to unearth the missing activists and take on Sheriff Stuckey (Gailard Sartain), his deputy Pell (the wild-eyed Brad Dourif) and an inbred, bigoted community.
Ward, a by-the-book FBI liberal (this is the Lyndon B. Johnson era), thinks the matter should be resolved with legalistic confrontation and formal interviews. Anderson, an ex-southern sheriff familiar with southern savoir-faire, strikes up a relationship with Deputy Pell's wife (fetchingly tender Frances McDormand).
"Some things are worth dying for," says Dafoe (speaking hotheadedly for Parker and Gerolmo). Replies battle-weary Hackman: "People down here think some things are worth killing for."
Parker gives you killing, all right; also lynching, burning and the terror of being chased over fences, past squealing hogs and into the night by the Ku Klux Klan. And cinematographer Peter Biziou ("9 1/2 Weeks," "A World Apart") makes sure you see the beauty among the beasts. In one haunting shot, he tilts from a magnificent, Magnolia State sky to a terrified young black man quivering in a chicken coop, awaiting a group of murderous vigilantes.
Parker and Gerolmo want to avenge the dead and bring bigots to highhanded justice in a "High Noon" finale. It may make a helluva western but any reference, by this British director, to the real South or the real course of civil rights should be considered coincidental.
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