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This movie won an Oscar for Best Cinematography.

'Mississippi Burning' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 09, 1988

"Mississippi Burning" surveys the geography of racism, sheds light on the dark night of the soul. Director Alan Parker stokes the inferno with cruelty, hatred and charring crosses, then sifts the cold ashes for clues. The mystery, ostensibly about the murder of three young civil rights workers, is the inhumanity of man.

Parker, a director of breadth, not depth, never supplies the big answers, but he does powerfully depict the climate of the Confederacy in the "Freedom Summer" of 1964. "Mississippi Burning" offers an appalling litany of white supremacist atrocities in the guise of a buddy detective thriller. Gene Hackman gives a towering performance as Anderson, a former sheriff wise to sleepy Southern streets, and Willem Dafoe is understated as Ward, the principled straight arrow in charge of the FBI's search for three missing civil rights workers.

Largely based on an actual case -- the murder of black activist James Chaney and white colleagues Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner -- the film strays when it comes to FBI methodology. But if it didn't, there would be no catharsis for an audience beset with brutality -- there's no heroism in witness payoffs and bureaucratic paperwork.

Anderson, accustomed to the smell of smoke and magnolias, knows the murderers will not be broken by rules. But Ward, younger, inexperienced in the field and a slave to procedure, ignores the veteran's advice. He butts heads with the Jessup County sheriff, a suspect himself, and endangers the black population in his attempts to question them. While the frustrated Ward calls for an army of reinforcements, Anderson sweet-talks the belles at the beauty shop, a tatty affair run by Mrs. Pell (Frances McDormand).

McDormand gives one of the year's most complex performances as the submissive, troubled wife of the odious Deputy Pell (Brad Dourif), secretly a Klansman. She is the movie's sole hero, its moral backbone, a pivotal character who overcomes a lifetime of prejudice, helped along by Anderson's courtly interest.

Anderson is a tainted hero who breaks the law to enforce it, just like Popeye Doyle, Hackman's Oscar-winning maverick in "The French Connection." Separated by 16 years of movie evolution, the two detectives both decide the ends do justify the means. If they have not lain down with dogs, they have at least visited the doghouse. Our own agitated hearts invite us to go along when Ward reluctantly gives in to Anderson's pragmatics. But he warns, "Don't drag me down to your gutter, Anderson." Hackman parries with, "These people crawled out of the sewers, Mr. Ward. Maybe the gutter is the place we have to be."

Oddly, screenwriter Chris Gerolmo and Parker have remained aloof from the victims of this enormous social evil. They give us abuse, not suffering. The black characters are the movie's sacrificial lambs -- burned out, raped, lynched. And they're as sketchily drawn as the inbred-looking white supremacists.

Parker, whose vision seems limited to black and white, comes close to admitting these problems in his notes on the making of "Mississippi Burning." The movie probably wouldn't have been made at all, he writes, if it had not had white heroes. Nevertheless, the British director has no doubt come up with an Oscar contender, a worthy work that draws its power from its dire subject and its epic sweep.

The film's humanity comes from the honesty of Hackman's performance -- Southern comfort, wily fox and old-boy smarm over a cold-as-Robocop chassis. Dafoe has the difficult straight man's part but manages moments of eloquence. "Where does it come from, all this hatred?" his character wonders, a bewildered intellectual in thick '60s spectacles.

Gerolmo attempts a quick-fix enlightenment, blaming poverty and superstition -- but the movie is more effective as a semihistorical document, lest we forget the apartheid in America's past. But like the South African saga "Cry Freedom," it views the black struggle from an all-white perspective. And there's something of the demon itself in that. It's the right story, but with the wrong heroes. There's this nagging feeling that it begins where it ought to have ended -- with the deaths of the three young activists.

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