Blu-Ray Review – Mississippi Burning (1988)

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Alan Parker over the years has become a somewhat forgotten director but he came out of a new generation of British filmmakers such as Ridley Scott and Adrien Lynne who all got their starts in commercials in the ’70s. His ’80s was certainly when his most exciting work came out such as Pink Floyd’s The Wall (a much better film than album), Birdy and the woefully underrated supernatural noir Angel Heart with Mickey Rourke. Mississippi Burning comes at the end of this extraordinary run of features and was the biggest commercial and critical success of this period in his filmmaking.

Mississippi Burning is based on a true story of a FBI investigation of three missing civil rights activists (2 white, 1 black) who go missing in the heartland of the Ku Klux Klan. It may not strictly follow the true events of the case and was critiqued by some critics due to this but Parker reminded his critics it’s a dramatisation not a documentary. The FBI investigation is headed by two agents Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) and both have different approaches to the their job. Ward is a very much a by the book agent and Anderson has become jaded by his age and to some extent sympathises with the locals because he is also from a small town in Mississippi but is willing to get the job done by any means necessary.

The white locals are full of great character actors such as Brad Dourif as Deputy Sheriff Clinton Pell and a very young Frances McDormand plays his wife. They would repeat playing husband and wife in Ken Loach’s equally investigative Hidden Agenda about “the troubles” in Northern Ireland. R. Lee Emery plays the town’s mayor and despite being a relatively small part he shines on-screen as his always did, this was year after his iconic work in Full Metal Jacket. Michael “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” Rooker also appears as a local KKK member. The depiction of the black characters have been criticised by some because they are portrayed as being passive at times with their extraordinary  amount of hatred being aimed at them, however this wasn’t necessarily uncommon due to gear and in the film they aren’t completely passive, they start a few riots in the streets.

Hackman as usual is fantastic and perfectly nails playing a Southerner despite being from California and he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. Dafoe at this point was still a relative newcomer he also starred in Scorsese’s masterful The Last Temptation of Christ the same year and he totally holds his own to Hackman. Peter Biziou’s cinematography perfectly captures the film’s era and the night scenes are especially effective, he won both the Academy Award and Bafta for his work. The film isn’t totally flawless, the score by Trevor Jones is very dated and doesn’t quite match the timeless quality of the film in other departments.

Parker’s film remains one of the best films ever made on civil rights era of the ’60s which shamefully isn’t as large as a genre as you would think given its importance. It’s helped enormously by being impeccable casted and just proves that half of directing is getting the right cast. The new Blu-Ray boosts a great transfer that gives a good film like look but without being overly grainy. The disc includes newly filmed interviews Alan Parker, Willem Dafoe and screenwriter Chris Gerolmo. Alan Parker does a commentary track which previously available on the old MGM DVD and is available on the US Twilight Time Blu-Ray but the solid interviews are only available on the UK Blu-Ray so that’s the way to go.

Ian Schultz

Crime, Drama | USA, 1988 | 18 |Second Sight | 14th September 2015 (UK) |Dir.Alan Parker | Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif