ALAN PARKER FOR MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Barry Levinson for Rain Man
Charles Crichton for A Fish Called Wanda
Mike Nichols for Working Girl
Martin Scorsese for The Last Temptation of Christ
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
Now, I never knew this, but apparently white people weren’t always nice to black people in the South. At least that seemed to be what Mississippi Burning amounted to, telling the story of an FBI investigation into the murder of civil rights activists with the urgency of a docudrama, while heavily fictionalizing every component. I don’t wish to chalk the film’s shortcomings entirely up to Parker, but as a message-driven British filmmaker tackling American social history, he reminds me more than a bit of the caricatured Tom Oakley played by Richard E. Grant in The Player. If Parker’s previous Oscar nomination came for a sensationalized account of a still factually based melodrama, this film displays the limitations of such a policy taken to their absurdly logical conclusion. Parker’s keen stylistic sensibility and top-notch collaborators yielded this film a handful of well-deserved above- and below-the-line nominations, but I was left wondering on the lost opportunity cost that came from pouring so much quality, research, and hard work into a scrupulous toothless pseudohistory.
The trouble with the film lies in the screenplay’s odd juxtaposition of creative choices; on the one hand disguising the true names (Clayton Townley for KKK Grand Dragon Samuel Bowers) and locations (Jessup County for Neshoba County) surrounding the murders, while insisting on the urgency of a specific period setting (Mississippi, 1964) and the implication of genuine historical consequences (a concluding title card sequence relaying the prison terms of the fictionalized culprits). The film possesses the exhaustive authenticity of 1960s small-town Mississippi, but the substance of the story is obviously a genericized imitation, either courteously or cravenly shielding the true account of the historical events. Instead, the story plays out as a fantasy white savior version of American history, one in which the black population cowers in fear, far from the reach of the often-mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr., and the crusade for justice is instead led by a duo of FBI agents ready to dismantle the hierarchy of the Jim Crow South. For their parts, Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman play their clichéd roles well, Dafoe as the idealistic by-the-book Agent Ward, Hackman as the cajoling bad cop (and former Mississippi sheriff, wouldn’t you know it) Agent Anderson. Hackman gets the more dynamic role, able to play his aw-shucks investigator with a coiled menace when dealing with the men of the town, and an unctuous charmer when working the sheriff’s deputy’s wife, played with a sheepish unsophistication by Frances McDormand.
It’s strange to reflect on the fact that, following his first Oscar nomination, Parker took a decade long break from *true-life* drama to direct two (more) musicals, plus whatever you would call Angel Heart, before returning to the well for another awards season push. He returns with as polished a filmmaking style as ever; the very worthy Peter Biziou won an Oscar for his luminous cinematography, which was able to draw out a distinctive feel for each nighttime scene (particularly the moonbathed opening sequence). Gerry Hambling, earning a third of four total nominations for his work with Parker, captures the roiling hostility in the small town while the sound mixing by Robert J. Litt, Elliot Tyson, Rick Kline, and Danny Michael effectively ratchets the unspoken tension in these scenes up for down, while punching up the invective of the Klan’s rage. The two crafts work together extremely well during the veiled rally, with the hateful speech delivered by Stephen Tobolowski’s Grand Dragon cutting sharply between reverberating long shots and crisp, immediate closeups. The problem is that all the pop, with none of the substance, makes the film seem like a glossy advertisement for junk food history.
When last we reviewed the 1988 Best Director race, Martin Scorsese was charging ahead of the pack with The Last Temptation of Christ, and it turns out that Parker was no match for the visionary auteur. Having now seen the full lot, I’m struck by especially stark divide between the commercial slickness of the three BP nominees (Barry Levinson’s Rain Man, Mike Nichols’ Working Girl, and this film) and the impudent nonconformity of the two rogue nominations (Temptation and Charles Crichton’s A Fish Called Wanda). I am glad that, on the eve of the indie invasion of 1989, when the major studios last appeared to have a lockdown on the awards race, there was still room in the Best Director category for such invigorating alternatives to the mainstream fare.