30 Years: Mississippi Burning (1988)

Working Girl   (1988)

Viola Davis recently remarked that she has regrets about her role in The Help, the blockbuster white savior complex with remarkably good performances.  Awards season ate it up, launching Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain into a wider audience and narrowly missing Viola’s chance at Lady Streep’s third. Some exceptional performances and genuinely entertaining moments left plenty of people thinking of Viola’s performance or the pie scene rather than the lack of any change for the maids and just a chummy thumbs up to Emma Stone for getting to see her dreams come true.  Emma…Oscar season is following you around like a savior complex.

For the last 30 Years On, I rewatched Mississippi Burning.  I haven’t seen it in over a decade and it’s the rare movie my mother ever recommended.  Her only other noted suggestion was Platoon, and her favorite actor in the 90s was Mel Gibson, so there’s a lot to unpack there.  Alan Parker’s film was challenged in 1988 for its focus on the white FBI agents compared to the lives of the Southern black community being tormented by the Klan.  This type of portrayal dominated Hollywood for decades at this point; Mark Harris’s fantastic Pictures at a Revolution covers the 1968 Oscars race in great depth, examining Sidney Poitier’s box office success surrounded by unrealistic depictions of African-Americans as sidekicks in their own stories.  Mississippi Burning stands at at the edge of the collapse of these types of stories; sure there’s still the Crash’s of the future, but Spike Lee is just starting to erupt.


The film opens in two manners: the nighttime chase of the civil rights activists at the center of the film–a shadowed foretelling of the violence in the film–and the cavalier introduction of the white FBI agents sent to investigate the crimes: Gene Hackman wiley, sizing up the enemy by singing Ku Klux Klan jingles, trying to lighten the mood for the more dower Willem Dafoe, trouble area right off the bat.  The FBI’s increasing entanglement of the white supremacy versus African-Americans just trying to live in peace surrounds the entire story, and as the story progresses only through more violence, little cultural substance is hidden within the story. A piece of retribution storytelling hardly excuses the sidekick role given to black America’s strife.

The film was a hit at Oscar despite the controversy.  Winning cinematography for burning crosses and nighttime car chases, it seems that editing and directing were likely not far behind.  Gene Hackman and Frances McDormand both nabbed nominations for their roles as brazen federal agent and battered wife, and the film. The screenplay surprisingly missed despite lower profile films sliding in, but the clever jokes–sometimes highly inappropriate–and the continual displays of violence likely grabbed people less than Big’s piano dance or Running on Empty’s family turmoil.  The film is appealing but oh so very dated. I’m most confused on my feelings for the film: it is not dull but rather unhelpful. Formed as fictionalized civil rights struggles, some stories should aim for truth over appeal, and this film feels more like popularity grasping than further urging for equality.


Find it on Amazon Prime if you want to take your own look


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