Barry Norman, a BBC critic at the time of Mississippi Burning's release, described the two shots opening the film as "Pure cinema, something no other medium could do so effectively". Alan Parker's quintessential crime drama about one of the many horrific racist stains on this country begins with a static two shot of two water fountains, one for Caucasians, the other for people of color. By holding onto such a simple yet impactful image, Parker solidifies, without any dialogue or exposition, the soul-killing depression of prejudice and dehumanization based solely on properties established from birth. As the credits still roll, he smash cuts to another static shot, this time of a burning church. Even those not familiar with the US' never-ending racial strife can easily guess which race the church belonged to. Bridging these images one after the other, Parker uses the cinematic language to make a vital point: Any dehumanization of the "other" will always eventually devolve into violence, even if it begins with something as trivial as a water fountain.
Screenwriter Chris Gerolmo loosely adapts the real-life story of two FBI agents (Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman) investigating the disappearance of three civil rights advocates in rural Mississippi during 1964, the boiling point of the civil rights movement. At the time of the film's release, the script was criticized for taking many liberties with the real case. I don't think Gerolmo's motivation was to create a dispassionate docudrama, but to explore the country's painfully slow and frustrating fight towards decapitating prejudice and racism, and the importance of standing up for what's morally right, even in the face of violence. It's not Gerolmo and Parker's intention to deliver a dry procedural. Through a pulse pounding crime thriller that manages to gets its moral points across without being preachy, they make the case that racism isn't a political or social problem, but a human one.
The people who populate the town represent the fight against equality and a staunch defense of white supremacy against all odds. It's interesting how Parker, in 1988, got Mississippi locals to improvise interview segments that are peppered across the fictionalized story, and was frightened at the ambiguity regarding whether or not they believed what they said when they claimed that "black people were happy before civil rights" or that the civil rights advocates "deserved what they got". Here's a film that takes place in 1964, shot in 1988, containing vitriol that's still relevant in 2019. Many of the interview subjects claim that the disappearance is a hoax. Today, they'd just call it "fake news", but the intention would stay the same. Many say the civil rights movement is un-American because they heard from somewhere that communists are funding it, a go-to smear for anyone who dares ask for equal rights and decency for the oppressed.
Hackman's Anderson and Dafoe's Ward are on the same moral side, but clash on the methods to push back against racists and indict some of them who cross the line into flagrant violence and murder. Anderson is from Mississippi, he knows these people, and he's fully aware that dragging them into a more inclusive society kicking and screaming will take time and patience. Ward looks at the race problem like ripping a band-aid, it can be painful but has to be done as swiftly and quickly as possible. The chemistry between the leads and the dynamic between the characters provides the thematic glue that gives Mississippi Burning its edge over similar dramas about the civil rights fight of the 60s. We already know the nature of the conflict between civil rights advocates and the avowed racists. The clash between two characters with the same goals and the same anger against the injustices they observe as they struggle to solve the case within an entire community that wants them gone (White people because they want to keep the segregationist status quo, black people because they're afraid of the violent retributions against them), but who disagree on the methods keeps Mississippi Burning a timeless exploration on how this country can ever truly match its ideals.
Mississippi Burning's emotional immediacy and efficiency in delivering its messages shouldn't overshadow how impeccably built a crime thriller it eventually is. The solid performances from Hackman, Dafoe, and a terrific ensemble cast that includes Frances McDormand, as well as Parker's airtight direction creates one of the best prestige studio pictures of the 80s.
Kino's new 4K transfer of Mississippi Burning looks great on 1080p. There's a nice balance between the digital remaster that takes out many scratches and blemishes (There's still very little here and there, but mostly unnoticeable), and a healthy amount of film grain that reserves the original look. Parker used a fairly gray and lifeless color palette for the backgrounds, which forced emphasis on facial expressions, drawing out the human element that the story drastically needed. This transfer perfectly captures this approach.
The DTS-HD 2.0 track shows a nice dynamic balance between sfx and dialogue, and really comes to life during the soulful score. The surround tracks barely register when matrixed to Dolby Prologic, so listening through regular TV speakers should be fine.
Commentary by Alan Parker: Ported from previous releases, this is a very informative commentary from the director, both about the production and the various aspects of the film's themes.
We also get a Trailer.
Unfortunately, Mississippi Burning's core conflict might never be fully resolved, making it still one of the handful of great and powerful films about racism in the US. With the country going through another bout for its soul these days, Kino's solid Blu-ray release is a welcome addition.