The opening scene of the film says it all!
There are two water fountains, one for "coloured people" and the other for "whites", labeled clearly so. The water fountain for the coloured people appears dull and unclean while the other one appears much more polished. So a white man and an African American man drink from their respective fountains as the beginning credits appear. This haunting initial image sums up the nature of this 1988 Alan Parker picture, that is "Mississippi Burning".
Based on a shocking true story of the murders of three civil rights workers in the U.S. state of Mississippi in 1964, "Mississippi Burning" is a film pretty well made, but one that focuses mostly on the dramatization of the FBI activity related to the case and concerning the two lead characters, the FBI agents portrayed by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, whose investigation approaches greatly differ.
When three civil rights activists, including one African American and two white Jewish boys are reported missing, two FBI agents, Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) are sent to Jessup County in Mississippi.
This is a place where there is blatant racial segregation. Coloured people and the white people can't even share the same dining area in a restaurant. White people don't mix with coloured people and vice versa. What's more, such a system is even approved and encouraged by the town law and even the mayor! In one scene, the mayor explains to Anderson: "Down here, we got two cultures; the white culture and the coloured culture"! When Anderson replies that rest of America doesn't see it that way, the sheriff replies "The rest of America don't mean jack shit"! So what can one do one everyone is in on it! Everyone from the law enforcement officers to the town locals maintain and are of the impression that the three boys had "just taken off somewhere".
Known to the two agents, the local law is also supporting and running a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan.
So, of course, the affairs are all fishy and our agents discover the bitter truth eventually, in spite of all the resistance offered by the local people and the law alike; the law, because they don't want outside FBI agents meddling with the local law, as that would lead to a major expose' and the local civilians, especially the African Americans for fear of being beaten up or threatened or being driven out of their houses, which will be ultimately burned down by the white extremists that is the KKK.
Adding to their troubles are the entirely different ways of working that Ward and Anderson seem to have. Ward takes a direct, "bureau procedure" approach to the investigation, while Anderson, having been lived and worked in Mississippi himself, knows very well how the minds of the people over there work when it comes to race related issues and hence refrains from taking a direct approach and doing things very subtly like trying to befriend some of the locals, strike casual conversations at local gatherings, salons, bars, etc.
Meanwhile, Anderson manages to befriend the wife of Deputy Clinton Pell(Brad Dourif), played by Frances McDormand. He then makes desperate attempts to try and get some information from her about this whole situation.
"Mississippi Burning" is powerful in parts and Alan Parker successfully creates the disturbing, violent environment in which African Americans were frequently attacked and were driven out by Klan members who burned down their houses at night, or beat them up during their social gatherings.
Only such moments are fewer and the conflicts of the FBI agents and their heroism are given more attention to. The role of African American civilians is then mostly reserved to being mute victims of the white extremists.
Excellent performances from Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand and Gene Hackman make "Mississippi Burning" an engaging watch. Hackman especially wins hands down in the acting department with yet another gritty portrayal of a cop but one that is quite different from his earlier, more memorable "Popeye" Doyle in "The French Connection (1971)".
"Mississippi Burning" is recommended:
1. For the adequately taut screenplay of a story that is more of a cop thriller than a look at the civil rights movement, and
2. Of course, for Gene Hackman.