This tape starts with part of a trailer for the Patrick Bergen Robin Hood that came out at the same time as Kevin Costner’s version, and tanked. But that’s from an older recording, as it soon switches to BBC2, and Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning. My memory of this is that it’s an angry film.
It opens pointedly enough, with a shot of segregated water fountains. The credits play over a burning church.
The film opens with three young men, two white, one black, who are followed by three cars, run off the road, then shot dead by Michael Rooker, playing his patented hard man.
Cut to some time later, and FBI agents Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman are travelling to the town, investigating what at first appears to be a missing persons case. Hackman, the older man, winds up Dafoe, the much younger agent who’s in charge of the case. The hallmarks are there for a mismatched buddy movie, but I don’t think this film wants to be that.
The film isn’t pulling any punches about how awful things were. They meet the town sheriff, and his first question is “Are you here to help us with our n****r problem?”
Dafoe is puzzling over the case. The police version is that they were arrested for speeding, held them until the evening, released them, followed them to the county line and didn’t see them again. But the men were trained activists, they would phone in to let people know where they were. Something smells wrong.
So, strangely, we have a mystery set up where the leads don’t know what happened, but we do. That’s an interesting construction. But the mystery isn’t the film, it’s the tension between Defoe and Hackman. Hackman used to be a sheriff, in a town just like this one, so he naturally his instinct is to believe the locals.
The three boys were in town to set up a voter registration clinic, until the Ku Klux Klan burned down the church they were going to use.
Dafoe and Hackman aren’t welcomed with open arms. The locals decorate the outside of their motel room with a religious symbol on their first night there.
Dafoe sets up in the local movie theatre with a ton of agents, while Hackman just wanders the town, meeting the locals and being charming in that effortless way Hackman has.
Frances McDormand works in the local hairdresser’s, and is married to Sheriff’s deputy Brad Dourif.
Dafoe’s approach of brining in hundreds of man incites the locals. More churches are burned down, and we get a lot of vox pops from locals, which doesn’t paint them in a favourable light. They sound like the comments section of the Daily Mail.
The Grand Wizard of the KKK is played by the usually avuncular Stephen Tobolowsky (Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day). Hearing the KKK’s hatred coming from such a regular face is somehow more frightening.
The feds catch a break when they persuade a young black boy to testify as a witness to three men who firebombed the house of another witness. They have to take steps to protect his identity.
But even with this testimony, the judge suspends the five year sentences on the three men. Cue more firebombing and even lynching. It’s a hard film to watch, drenched in hopelessness.
The key to the whole case is McDormand, who is husband Dourif’s alibi for the crucial time when the boys were murdered. And when she finally admits to Hackman what she knows, and where the bodies are buried, Dourif beats her up. Dafoe and Hackman almost come to blows, but Dafoe tells Hackman he wants to get all the perpetrators, and he’s willing to do it Hackman’s way.
A bit of pressure on the right people gets the names of those involved, and the FBI are able to make cases against most of them. The Sheriff is acquitted, as he was smart enough not to take part in the murder.
This film is just as powerful today as I remember it being when it was released. And just as angry. It’s a movie that simmers with rage.
BBC Genome: BBC Two – 1st November 1992 – 22:10
There’s a slight change of pace, as recording switches to the Movie Channel, and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours. I can’t remember if this is a comedy, a drama, or both. The titles have upbeat jazz over them, but with Woody Allen, that’s no real help.
Martin Landau is being honoured for his philanthropy towards a hospital. But earlier that day he’d read a letter written by his lover, Angelica Huston, to his wife, revealing their two year long affair.
Meanwhile, Allen is a struggling documentary filmmaker whose brother in law Alan Alda is a successful TV executive. Alda offers him a directing gig, making a fly on the wall documentary about Alda himself.
Angelica Huston is frustrated with the state of her relationship. He’s obviously strung her along long enough without any more commitment, and she wants to talk to his wife, to bring the affair out in the open.
Allen rather falls for Mia Farrow, a producer on his film. So does Alda.
At one point they’re talking about Alda. “I can’t like anyone who says ‘nucular'” “He also says ‘foilage'” – I wonder if this predates the Simpsons doing a similar joke.
One of Landau’s patients and friends is Sam Waterston, who is a Rabbi, and acts as something of a confessional early in the film.
Landau has a friend kill Huston for him, to stop her talking to his wife, and revealing some financial indiscretions she knows about. But he’s not very good about being a conspirator. As soon as he gets the news from his friend that the deed is done, he excuses himself from the dinner party he’s hosting and goes straight to Huston’s apartment. To be fair, he does clear out some potentially incriminating mail and photos.
Allen’s documentary about Alda doesn’t go too well – it’s not complimentary, especially when he cuts from Alda ranting in a meeting to archive footage of Mussolini.
Allen tries to forge a relationship with Farrow, but she bats him back. So when, in the final scene, she returns to town as Alda’s fiancee he looks like he was robbed, even though he never had any form of relationship beyond friendship and work. It’s a perfect example of male privilege. God, the film even gets Farrow to practically apologise for being with Alda.
Landau totally gets away with it. Which I guess is meant to be ironic. Plus he must be a crap doctor, because Waterston is blind by the end of the movie.
I preferred his early, funny ones.
The recording ends shortly after the film.
- trail: Tomorrow on Sky
- trail: State of the Union