Mississippi Burning is a 1988 film that chronicles the investigation of the murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. It addresses the issues of segregation, racism, and the question of how much influence the FBI had on this crucial point in the history of the United States.
The film stars Gene Hackman as an older FBI agent, a former sheriff who has a good grasp on how the world of law enforcement really works. His partner, Willem Dafoe, is a younger agent full of idealism and a by-the-book mentality, and this case is something of a rude awakening. Also of note is the character of Mrs. Pell, a member of the town that proves crucial in cracking the case, superbly played by Frances McDormand.
Essentially, the movie revolves around Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe's characters as they try to solve the case of three civil rights workers who vanish in Mississippi in 1964. The film seems to try to do three things at once: paint the FBI as hugely influential and powerful, paint a vivid picture of the American south in the mid-1960s (and in hand, the burgeoning civil rights movement), and last and least, build a crime caper. My feeling is that they do the second of the three the best by far.
The movie was directed by Alan Parker and written by Chris Gerolmo. It runs for two hours and eight minutes. It was originally distributed by Orion, but is now distributed by MGM. One can currently find the film available on both VHS and DVD formats.
The best part of the film is the visual recreation of the time and place; the setting and cinematography are fantastic and really create a feeling of a slowly-modernizing old South. Some of the visual images are quite impressive; the Klan rally was in particular quite visually moving. It's also interesting because the film is reality-based; it is strongly based on a true story and except for a few scenes, largely very realistic. Gene Hackman, as always, is fantastic here, as is the always-good Frances McDormand.
Two parts of the film were a bit lacking, and this perhaps limited the film a bit. One, it assumes that the FBI is nigh-omnipotent, almost a modern-day Prometheus, bringing the fire of justice from Washington to the mere ignorant mortals of Mississippi. This is utterly ridiculous in a lot of ways; such a one-sided portrayal is always lacking. This links to another problem and that is the script; in many places, the film really lags and doesn't go anywhere other than to show off some solid acting, especially considering that the main characters are often not doing anything.
Of note is the stark racism displayed at several points in the film. If you are bothered by racism, even in a historical film such as this, you might not want to watch it. There are several strong instances of racism in the movie and the Ku Klux Klan is an active presence as the plot moves forward.
The film was nominated for seven Oscars in 1989, including best picture, a best actor nomination for Gene Hackman, and a best supporting actress nomination for Frances McDormand. The film only won one award, though, for best cinematography. It was also nominated for four Golden Globe awards.
Is the film worth watching? If you want a great historical portrait of a time in the history of America, the film is definitely worth watching. However, if you want a crime caper, there are many, many better films out there; try The Usual Suspects, Memento, or Goodfellas just for starters. In favor of the film, though, I do have to say that Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, and Frances McDormand all turn in very good performances here and make the film actually quite enjoyable in the end.