Mississippi Burning (1988)

mississippi burning poster 1988 movie
8.5 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 8/10

Great cast and dynamic

Fictionalizes many of the events

Movie Info

Movie Name:   Mississippi Burning

Studio:   Orion Pictures

Genre(s):   Drama

Release Date(s):   December 2, 1988 (Premiere)/December 9, 1988 (US)

MPAA Rating:   R

mississippi burning ku klux klan fbi impersonators

You never know who is hiding under masks…

In 1964 in Mississippi, three civil rights workers disappeared.  The two Jewish men and the African-American man seemed to vanish…leading to the FBI being sent to investigate.  Young upstart Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) and former Mississippi sheriff Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) head to Mississippi to uncover the truth.  With no-one talking to them, Ward learns that to get to the root of the truth, he might have to take Anderson’s less orthodox methods to get to the truth.

Directed by Alan Parker, Mississippi Burning is based on the disappearance of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964 and the FBI investigation that followed it.  The movie won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography and nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand), Best Director, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing.

Mississippi Burning is “based” on real events but took a number of liberties.  The movie takes the framework of the story and crafts a drama around it…which does work.

mississippi burning willem dafoe gene hackman

You might be young and valiant, but you have a lot to learn

The drama of the movie doesn’t necessarily involve the injustice of the situation, but the meeting of two different styles of investigators.  Ward and Anderson butt heads on how an investigation should go down and much like something like In the Heat of the Night, both characters are right in their own way…the truth sometimes means getting dirty.  It is also a rather sad commentary that in the movie the beating of Frances McDormand by her husband really spurs the characters into action…and not the lynching of African-Americans and the destruction of their property.

The cast really excels in Mississippi Burning.  You have the great dynamic of Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman with Hackman being the obvious star while Dafoe is the “straight man” to the wild card.  Frances McDormand makes an early splash in the movie as the beaten wife of the smarmy Deputy Sheriff Clinton Pell.  R. Lee Ermey has a small and less explosive role as the mayor of the town while Michael Rooker and Stephen Tobolowsky play some of the Klan members.  Saw star Tobin Bell (aka Jigsaw) can also be seen as a member of Dafoe’s agents.

mississippi burning shaving scene gene hackman brad dourif

How close do you like your shave?

The movie is set in the “old” South and as a period piece, it holds up.  The set design and look of the movie is strong.  It maybe would have been nice to include more real news reports from the period in the film (since the press was the highly involved), but it could have also blurred the lines between reality and drama.

This is one of those movies that needs to remind watchers that it isn’t a documentary.  The movie is a strong drama, but much of the drama is fantasy developed from the script.  The movie however is a solid film that has great actors eating up the scenes.  Since it is a period piece, the movie remains topical today…and leaves you hoping that things have truly changed since 1964.

Related Links:

The 60th Academy Award Nominations

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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