Mississippi Burning (1988): Alan Parker’s Oscar-Winning Drama, Starring Gene Hackman and Frances McDormand in Oscar Nominated Performances

Though well intentioned, Alan Parker’s “Mississippi Burning ” aroused controversy because it recounted a government investigation of the shocking murder of three civil rights workers in 1964 from a strictly white perspective, failing to acknowledge the role of blacks in this movement. 


When “Mississippi Burning” opened in December of 1988 to qualify for Oscar considerations, its producers were confident that their socially conscious if fictionalized movie is a shoo-in for nominations and awards, after all it was about a significant issue, which also tapped into the renewed interest in the 1960s as an era. 


Early reviews were positive, and Time magazine placed a cover story on the comeback of the Hollywood message movie as a genre.  Gradually, however, the film’s stature began to diminish as it came under harsh scrutiny from various groups.


Black leaders felt that the film underplayed the role of their people in the civil rights movement.  Historians noted serious tampering with the facts, and were upset that the fictionalized chronicle was presented as truth.  Moralist critics noted that in the film FBI agents are like descendants of Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood), lacking complexity and point of view on their dubious action.  White Southerners complained of prejudice since the film shows only rednecks.  And film critics pointed out storytelling flaws and unconvincing characterization for it didn’t make sense that such men would get involved in such a risky endeavor.


In short, the intelligentsia gradually turned against a movie that was too much of a middlebrow work. It was not the first time that British filmmaker Alan Parker has aroused irks of his movies: “Bugsy Malone,” “Midnight Express,” “Birdy,” and “Angel Heart” were all controversial for their pretentious thematic treatment as well as their slick technique, which owed a lot to Parker’s origins as an ads and commercials director.


Penned by Chris Gerolmo, the narrative focused on the FBI search for the bodies of three activists, a black Southerner and two white Northerners, murdered during the protest summer of 1964, on June 21, basing the plot on the real-life characters of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodlman.


The factual case was then imposed on a typical Hollywood policier format, pairing two radically dissimilar federal agents, Anderson (Gene Hackman), a Southern liberal, philosophy, and Ward (Willem Dafoe), a Kennedy-era-idealist and by-the-book officer, eager to make the world a better place. Needless to say, neither character is based on the agents who actually investigated the case.  Throughout, Ward’s pompous preachiness is deflated by Hackman’s deprecating Agent Ward.  At the end, when Ward delivers a secular sermon, it’s presented at face value.


The opening scene, depicting the killing of the civil rights workers, was visually stunning. To be fair, there were other powerful sequences, such as the ruthless terrorization of a black church congregation by the Klan, and of a distraught, neglected wife (Frances McDormad), who’s determined to do the right thing even if it means turning her own guilty and vicious husband (Brad Dourif), who beats her, over to the federal authorities.


Gene Hackman gave a strong performance, and so did McDormand in a touching portrait of the confused, decent southern wife; both received Oscar nominations for their roles. The scenes in which an increasingly terrified she gives Anderson the information he needs for indictment shows the uncertainty of her motivation, namely, whether she’s doing so because of moral commitment to justice or her loneliness and romantic yearning for Anderson.


But overall the film rings false, wrongheaded, and shallow, a well-intentioned but overwrought work, made by an outsider, an accomplished British craftsman, who is good with style, but either misconceived or misunderstood the essence of the 1960 civil rights movements.


End Note


In 1990, the TV movie Murder in Mississippi, presented a slightly more accurate chronicle of the same events.


Oscar Nominations:  7


Picture, produced by  Frederick Zollo, Robert F. Colesberyy

Director: Alan Parker

Actor: Gene Hackman

Supporting Actress: Frances McDormand

Cinematography: Peter Biziou

Sound: Robert Litt, Elliot Tyson, Rick Kline, Danny Michael

Film Editing: Gerry Hambling


Oscar Awards: 1




Oscar Context:


The most nominated film in 1988, “Rain Man” received four Oscars out of its 8 nods, including Picture, Director, and Actor.  The other Best Picture nominees represented a mixed bag in genre and quality: “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Mississippi Burning,” each with 8 nominations, Mike Nichols’s comedic fable “Working Girl,” with 6, and Kasdan’s literary adaptation “The Accidental Tourist,” with 4.




Anderson (Gene Hackman)

Ward (Willem Dafoe)

Mrs. Pell (Frances McDormand)

Deputy Pell (Brad Dourif)

Mayor Tilman (R. Eee Emery)

Sheriff Stuckley (Gallard Sartain)

Townley (Stephen Tobolowsky)

Bailey (Michael Rooker)

Lesrer Cowens (Pruitt Taylor Vince).



Orion (Frederick Zollo Productions)

Produced by Frederick Zollo and Robert F. Colesberry.

Directed by Alan Parker.

Screenplay: Chris Gerolmo;

Camera: Peter Biziou.

Editor: Gerry Hambling.


Running time: 125 Minutes.