Peter Travers
December 12, 1988 12:00 PM

Gene Hackman, an indisputably great actor giving the performance of his life as a Southern sheriff-turned-FBI agent, sits in a seedy Mississippi motel room. He’s educating his Yankee liberal partner, a tightly coiled Willem (The Last Temptation of Christ) Dafoe, about racism. Hackman’s daddy, a struggling farmer, once told him, “If you aren’t better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?” That ignorant thinking left Hackman’s father “an old man so full of hate he didn’t know that being poor was what was killing him.” Hackman knew. Screenwriter Chris (Miles From Home) Gerolmo and director Alan (Angel Heart) Parker know too, and when they aren’t overstating their message about the poverty, frustration and cowardice at the roots of racism, their powerhouse drama floors you like a sock in the solar plexus. As a starting point they use a tragic, real-life incident: On June 21, 1964 three civil rights workers—Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two white volunteers from New York, and James Chaney, a black Mississippian—disappeared near the town of Philadelphia, Miss. Black activists had previously run afoul of the Ku Klux Klan, but now two whites were in peril. Media coverage of the case provoked a national scandal. President Johnson ordered an FBI investigation, and it’s that inquiry the movie fictionalizes to underscore the shock. Though the bodies of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were found six weeks later under an earthen dam, no one has ever been convicted of their murders, so Gerolmo and Parker have made a film that shouts injustice. They re-create what our TV screens reflected at the time: interviews with white bigots who speak openly of black racial inferiority, the funerals of black victims of the Klan and the sight that symbolized the time—the homes and churches of blacks burning to the ground. The images outrage. Parker, a self-described “hooligan from North London,” is an expert movie manipulator, as he showed in Midnight Express. But he and Gerolmo show remarkable subtlety in their depiction of the divided loyalties of Southern whites. Dafoe’s by-the-book FBI agent sees the South as a nation of bigots who need to be ramrodded into integration. Hackman, a pragmatist not above stretching the law to clean up Klan scum, knows better. He understands that for every sheet-wearing deputy sheriff (Brad Dourif), there’s someone with the decency of the deputy’s wife, strikingly played by Frances (Raising Arizona) McDormand. Fed up with her husband’s brutality, McDormand finds the strength to turn against him. Hackman’s attraction to her (an early scene in which he merely touches her hair has real sexual charge) links up with his faith in a South capable of change, a South most movies ignore. Despite its excesses, Mississippi Burning serves as a stinging reminder of a civil rights war still far from won. It’s a film to rank with the year’s best and boldest. (R)

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