The heat from Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning can still be felt more than 30 years after its 1988 release. This 1960s set drama (which is loosely based on real events) still packs a hefty emotional punch. Chris Gerolmo’s script makes it strong material for a heavy-weight cast that includes Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif and R. Lee Ermey.
Racial tension and small town politics take centre stage as two FBI agents (Hackman and Dafoe) travel deep into the heartland of the United States to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers. The pair are forced to fight against a deep seeded culture of hate to discover the truth of what really happened in a battle that takes them head-to-head with the Ku Klux Klan.
Mississippi Burning’s main strength sits with its impressive cast – and the inclusion of Gene Hackman once again highlights how the big screen has become less magnetic since he retired from acting. Hackman is as good as ever as the grizzled FBI agent brought into the deep south to solve a crime which nobody wants solved, while Dafoe shows wide-eyed naivety as the younger agent who is eager to see justice prevail. Brad Dourif is a creepy, evil redneck and R. Lee Ermey once again barks out dialogue like a rabid dog. Frances McDormand may have been the only one to receive an Oscar-nomination for her work in the film but that doesn’t mean they don’t do sterling work.
Alan Parker tackles Mississippi Burning’s subject matter sensitively but the director never shies away from the harsh realities of the situation. This might be a Hollywood drama but there’s a grit inherent to how its portrayed onscreen. It might be that Parker’s English upbringing meant that he didn’t have the fear or a preconceived notion to tell the tale in a certain way. He brings the film to life with the help of some impressive technical credits while Peter Biziou’s Oscar-winning cinematography captures the intensity of the southern location and Trevor Jones’ score underpins the tension and emotion of the piece.
It’s a testament to Alan Parker that Mississippi Burning still impresses today. Chris Gerolmo’s script sets the scene and the incredible casts delivers on a performance level. They really don’t make them like this anymore.