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For, Friday, June 28, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: A new Blu-ray release by Kino Lorber of this stirring civil-rights picture is worthy of note, with Gene Hackman at the top of his game. My review was published in the Deseret News on Jan. 13, 1989.

“Mississippi Burning” is getting a lot of flak because it spins its fictional take from a true story and somewhat distorts the facts. (Isn’t that what fiction does?)

The true event is that in 1964 three young civil rights workers — two white, one black — were murdered in a small, corrupt Mississippi town as they attempted to help establish voter registration for blacks.

Some critics of the film are angry that it offers a “happy Hollywood ending” that is inaccurate; that FBI agents are the heroes when in fact some agents obstructed justice; that ultimately the FBI solves the case by taking violent and illegal action, when in fact the case was cracked by an informant who was reportedly paid $30,000; that Mississippi locals fulfill northern stereotypes; and ultimately that the film concentrates too strongly on the white viewpoint for what is essentially a black story (it is never brought out, for example, that voter registration was something blacks were bringing to their own people).

And all of those complaints are legitimate. If you’re looking for a documentary.


Willem Dafoe, left, Gene Hackman, 'Mississippi Burning'

But the violence, the hatred, the bigotry and the ignorance that reached a zenith in the ‘60s is probably not inaccurate, and the simple, if unpleasant fact is that shrouding a message of racial tolerance in a tense, exciting mystery-thriller formula will bring “Mississippi Burning” to a much wider audience than might otherwise have been realized.

When all the complaints have subsided, what we have here is a most compelling film, one that is admittedly conventional but which nonetheless tells a strong story and is loaded with rich characters that never detract from the film’s central conflict, the civil-rights issues at hand.

One of the performances, however, stands head and shoulders above the rest — Gene Hackman’s sensitive portrait of a Southern redneck who was once a local county sheriff and now must buckle under to a young northern agent (Willem Dafoe) who is in charge but who has no idea how to deal with these people.


Hackman is in top form — and for him that’s far above excellent — but his character also represents what’s wrong with the movie. In the end, it is his crude, violent tactics that solve the mystery — though that has no basis in actual fact.

Hackman returns to his “Popeye” Doyle character from “The French Connection,” taking a “Dirty Harry” maverick approach to bend the rules.

Despite some drawbacks, “Mississippi Burning” is a film to be reckoned with. It doesn’t just deliver the dramatic goods; it makes you think.

It’s been a long time since those violent years of racial upheaval. But have we really changed that much?

“Mississippi Burning” is rated R for violence, profanity and vulgarity.