Flickchart Road Trip: Mississippi
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
A Holiday Inn in Biloxi, Mississippi is now officially the strangest place I’ve ever watched the Oscars.
The previous top contender was when I spent spring break my senior year on Sanibel Island, Florida, watching in the kitchen of a condo rented by some of my classmates, with a drink in my hand. That was David Letterman’s infamous Uma/Oprah year. In every other year I can remember, I watched the show wherever I was living at the time.
The Biloxi location didn’t give me the blues, so to speak. (Thank you, Neil Simon.) Instead, I thought of it in a similar way to seeing movies in the theater while I’m on vacation: It guarantees I’ll remember them. So when I think of the 85th Academy Awards, I’ll always remember sitting on my bed in my hotel room, awkwardly carving up the steak I’d ordered from Gianni’s Steak House downstairs, as Seth MacFarlane slung limp jokes and sang a song about boobs.
I arrived in Biloxi via my old friend interstate 10, just a scant 89 miles northeast of my last stop in New Orleans. While there, I also enjoyed Mississippi’s beautiful gulf coast, as well as two of the seven casinos that keep the local economy thriving.
Speaking of the Oscars, I appropriately watched Alan Parker‘s Mississippi Burning (global ranking: 830) on the 25th anniversary of the year it was released (though its chance to win the best picture Oscar didn’t come until March of 1989). Around 1988 was right when I was first becoming enthralled by the Academy Awards, so it seems I should have made time for this movie before now. Maybe I just wasn’t ready to delve into the darker side of humanity it portrays — not that a person is every really “ready” for such a thing.
What it’s about
Two FBI agents (Willem DaFoe and Gene Hackman) are dispatched to Jessup County, Mississippi after the 1964 disappearance and presumed murder of three civil rights workers. DaFoe’s Alan Ward is the straight-laced Washington man, as passionate about protocol as he is about his hatred of racial intolerance. Hackman’s Rupert Anderson is the Mississippi boy who knows the local rhythms and can rattle the local segregationists with his ability to get inside their heads. Ward and Anderson encounter resistance from their first moments on the scene, as it becomes clear that even local law enforcement could be directly involved with the disappearances — not to mention directly involved with the Ku Klux Klan. Their challenge is to interview as many terrorized black Mississippians as they can without putting them in further danger, while bringing the resources of the FBI to bear without landing in the crossfire themselves. Meanwhile, arsonists continue to strike a number of prominent African American meeting spots, as the feds begin to wonder if they’ll ever uncover the bodies of the missing civil rights workers.
How it uses the state
As they pass the sign welcoming them to Mississippi, Anderson cracks to Ward “What has four eyes but still can’t see? Mississippi!” (It works better as a spoken joke, where “eye” and “i” work as homophones.) Later a local tells them “Rest of America don’t mean s—. You in Mississippi now.” Place is everything here. As much as Mississippi functions as the embodiment of Southern racism, a few exceptions do prevent the movie from being an out-and-out indictment of the state’s residents on the whole.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Mississippi movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Mississippi Burning will battle:
1) A Time to Kill (1996, Joel Schumacher). My Flickchart: #430/3452. Global: #1812. A Time to Kill becomes my first top-ranked film from a state that qualifies as a guilty pleasure. How else is there to feel about a film adapted from a novel by John Grisham, prolific writer of populist legal thrillers, and directed by perennial punching bag Joel Schumacher? Yet this film vibrates with an intensity that overcomes a viewer’s sense of snobbery. In addition to the incendiary Samuel L. Jackson as a man on trial for slaying the two rednecks who raped and nearly murdered his daughter, Matthew McConaughey gives one of his best screen performances (especially as he gets choked up during his summation), and Sandra Bullock maintains the charm and vulnerable strength she first showed us in Speed. The fictional town of Canton, Mississippi plays host to this button-pushing, supremely effective but probably not altogether realistic drama.
2) In the Heat of the Night (1967, Norman Jewison). My Flickchart: #880/3452. Global: #264. This groundbreaking best picture winner, based on a novel and inspiration for a TV series, gives us some indication why Norman Jewison was originally slated to film the Malcolm X biopic that eventually became one of Spike Lee‘s greatest films. The star here, though, is Sidney Poitier, who confronts Mississippi racism head on as a Philadelphia detective accidentally involved in a murder investigation in the backward fictional town of Sparta. (If filmmakers are going to give Mississippi such a hard time, at least they seem inclined to make the towns fictional.) Poitier’s reluctant partnership with the racist sheriff played by Rod Steiger makes for one of cinema’s great odd couples, as the power of good police work overcomes their mutual distrust — but not without plenty of bumps along the way. It was Steiger who won the Oscar, but Poitier who remained seared into our brains.
3) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, Richard Brooks). My Flickchart: #1336/3452. Global: #440. This adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play gave Elizabeth Taylor one of her most iconic roles as Maggie the Cat, while Paul Newman and Burl Ives smolder as they do battle on the grounds of the Mississippi Delta plantation of Ives’ Big Daddy Pollitt. The heat and the rain are equally ferocious over the course of a dozen tempestuous hours of argument and recrimination. Although it’s clear why this is one of Williams’ most heralded works and a terrific showcase for any actor (especially these actors), something about this movie kept me at arm’s length, which is why a film of this pedigree doesn’t crack the top third of my chart. It’s notable, however, for containing a fairly overt homosexual subtext in the relationship between Newman’s Brick and his friend Skipper, who kills himself prior to the events seen here. That’s certainly a surprise for 1958.
4) The Help (2011, Tate Taylor). My Flickchart: #1761/3452. Global: #1776. Set in Jackson at about the time of Mississippi Burning, The Help looks at the more civilized side of racism — if there is such a thing. In a way it’s more focused on the South’s legacy of slavery, specifically the ironies built into that dynamic, where superior whites permitted blacks to cook for them and care for their children but rarely extended them more than a cursory sense of respect. The controversial film had its share of proponents and detractors, but its best picture nomination suggests it ultimately resonated with more viewers than it repelled. The maids interviewed by Emma Stone‘s Skeeter Phelan (cast in the regrettable “white savior” role) are at least empowered through the minor rebellions they can manage within the confines of their jobs — particularly when it comes to their recipes for pie. Octavia Spencer is a force of nature in the role that earned her an Oscar, and Viola Davis narrowly missed out on an Oscar of her own.
5) The Ladykillers (2004, Joel & Ethan Coen). My Flickchart: #2896/3452. Global: #5494. The Coens’ lowest-ranked film among Flickchart users is a true Coen oddity: It has almost no cult following. While most Coen films are beloved by someone, few people will go to the mat for this screwball caper. Tom Hanks, chewing scenery as a dapper Southern dandy, leads a crew of bumbling criminals trying to break into the safe of a casino adjacent to an old lady’s basement, whose walls they dig through while pretending to rehearse music. A trash barge on the Mississippi River figures into the plot as a disposal receptacle for the would-be comical number of bodies that pile up. Really, it’s this movie that’s fit to be hauled away.
First duel: Mississippi Burning vs. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The cat escapes Burning‘s flames, but the hot tin roof goes down. Mississippi Burning wins.
Second duel: Mississippi Burning vs. In the Heat of the Night. They call him Mr. Tibbs, and you should too if you know what’s good for ya. In the Heat of the Night wins.
Mississippi Burning finishes third out of the six movies.
As I was watching it, I was gripped by the pure cinematic power of Mississippi Burning — its acting, its directing, its dramatization of the pernicious evil that is racial persecution. This is the kind of movie you watch with your hands curled into fists of righteous indignation. With only a few days to think about it, however, I could see some of its limitations.
This film’s problem, which it doesn’t share with even the lesser films I’ve mentioned, is that it barely gives a voice to the persecuted. The “colored” Mississippians (to use the prevailing terminology) serve more as pawns in a fight between good whites and bad ones, than as robust characters who make decisions and take matters into their own hands. Certainly, part of these characters’ passivity is motivated by self-preservation. One character is thrown from a moving car just for failing to immediately cut short an unsolicited interview with Ward. The cumulative result of all this inactivity, however, is a sense that these characters need white outsiders to fight their battles for them. It’s Ward and Anderson who experience the emotional catharses, who serve as the viewers’ surrogates.
When you set that aside and grapple only with the story the filmmakers choose to tell, it’s easy to get behind the film’s good intentions. It’s also easy to be wowed by the acting. DaFoe can barely keep the frustration contained within his body, as he practically quivers with rage. Hackman’s character has the more interesting arc, however, as his own indignation has to grow gradually over the course of the narrative. His sly methods for ferreting out the truth are dynamite. Hackman masters the skill of needling suspects until they want to crawl out of their own skin, all with a hint of that sneer that tells them just how much he disdains them. A young Frances McDormand joined Hackman in earning an Oscar nomination for her acting, as the woman imprisoned in a marriage to a loathsome sheriff’s deputy (Brad Dourif).
Finishing up two straight states that dealt with the hard realities of racism, I’m ready to move on to something more purely optimistic. How about the amazing story of the woman who taught Helen Keller to communicate? In Alabama I’ll be watching Arthur Penn‘s 1962 adaptation of The Miracle Worker, inspired by a play that was based on Keller’s autobiography. See you in Crimson Tide country.