Sunday, April 9, 2017
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
Director Alan Parker’s 1988 film asks a difficult question: How far must people go beyond the limits of the law when individuals cannot obtain justice under the existing laws? To explore this issue, the story is set during a period of racial turmoil in Mississippi in 1964.
As the movie credits are displayed, there is a shot of two water fountains. A pipe running between the sinks symbolizes the iron hard divide separating the two races, since one fountain is for whites and one is for “colored” people. But, as we know, it is the whites in power that have established this division, and it shows how this enforced wall of separation creates a lack of community (the word “unity” is contained in the word) between diverse groups. The next shot is of a building burning. It turns out to be a church, and, ironically, we hear a hymn sung in the background, as a place of Christian values is destroyed as retribution for trying to change the status quo by those pretending to live by Jesus’ teachings of brotherhood.
We then witness the scene which initiates the confrontation between the local and Federal authorities. Three young northern civil rights activists, two white boys and one black, who were trying to get African Americans registered to vote in Philadelphia, Mississippi, drive a car out of town at night (the attacks usually occur at night in the movie, accompanied by bass-driven thumping music, emphasizing the ugliness of the hate of these citizens which lies beneath the smiles displayed during the day). They are chased off the road by pick-up trucks and a police car. Here we have a merging of the police, who are supposed to protect all citizens, with members of the Ku Klux Klan, whose racist agenda preaches the exact opposite of that protection. The original plan of these men is to scare the young men, but one of their group, Frank Bailey (Michael Rooker), isn’t worried about exposing his face, because he then shoots the driver in the head. We get a black screen, stressing the dark deeds, and we hear the other attackers whoop it up as they kill the other two activists.
The issue of civil rights for African Americans was a primary concern at the time, led by black leaders, especially Martin Luther King, Jr. The South had imposed Jim Crow laws to keep blacks subservient. Federal legislation passed in Washington, D. C. attempted to rid the nation of prejudicial restrictions. So, we then see FBI agents in a car in Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of the three men. Agent Ward (Willem Dafoe), a young, serious, by-the-book fellow, heads up the investigation, despite his youth, and his partner is Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman). Anderson was a sheriff in Mississippi before joining the Bureau, and the two could not be more different. Anderson sings, sarcastically, the Ku Klux Klan marching song, which doesn’t amuse Ward. Anderson questions Ward’s lack of experience, but his young superior educates him concerning his ability when he tells him he was shot making sure African American James Meredith was admitted to a white southern college. In response to Anderson’s statement that at least he lived, Ward shows his priority is on the bigger picture when he says, “No, what’s important is Meredith lived.”
We witness the different styles of these two men when they arrive in town. Anderson stops to say hello to the locals, showing how he is familiar with the need to act folksy in a place like this one. But, when inside the Jessup County Sheriff’s Office, and Deputy Pell (Brad Dourif) dismisses Ward by saying he will have to wait to see the sheriff, Anderson knows he must dispense with politeness and needs to be tough with the local cops to establish respect. After meeting with Sheriff Stuckey (Gailard Sartain), Ward says the official story (the surface lie) is that the youths were stopped for speeding, brought back to the sheriff’s office, released, and accompanied to the county line. But, being trained activists, they should have called into their headquarters, but they didn’t, which causes Ward to become suspicious of the local police report. Anderson tries to make Ward understand how a small town like this one works when Ward questions the police report. He says it doesn’t matter what the truth is, because if the local sheriff says that’s the way it is, “then that’s the way it is.” Anderson says, despite actual geography, being in that small town is like being a million miles away from the rest of the world. That is how insulated and entrenched in their beliefs the residents are.
Anderson and Ward go into a restaurant to eat, with Anderson understanding the correct behavior, charming the hostess, and telling Ward not to go into the “colored” section. When Ward wanders into the segregated area, the intimidation is palpable because he violates the local rules. Total silence descends on the establishment, and eyes focus on Ward. But, Ward, although noble in his intentions, doesn’t understand that when he sits down and questions a black man in the eatery, he puts the man in danger just by sitting next to the FBI agent. That black man is later abducted and injured.
The next scene has Ward and Anderson standing among the burned ruins of the church where the civil rights activists were trying to get blacks educated about voting. Anderson points out the irony of the past events by saying that these people didn’t even know they had the right to vote, and in retaliation for that knowledge, they lose the place they went to for sanctuary and worship. Ward wants to question the townspeople, but Anderson tells his fellow agent that they will not talk with Ward. The two of them get to leave, but the blacks have to stay there and sustain the harmful effects of the FBI’s passing presence. Anderson’s prediction is initially correct as victims who escaped the church attack find it pointless to speak up about the assailants.
Back at the motel where they are staying, Anderson says he believes that the civil rights boys were used, sacrificed from a distance. Ward says there are causes worth dying for, to which Anderson replies that down there, folks think there are things worth killing for. Thus, those who want to change what those in power have enforced, must suffer, while those holding onto that power, feel they must inflict suffering on those that resist their rule. This concept lays the foundation for what happens later in the movie, since it implies that those wishing to make changes to what they consider unjust practices feel they must sometimes circumvent the law.
In the motel room, Anderson relates an insightful story about how his father killed the mule of a black neighbor who was doing better financially than his dad. The neighbor then moved away. His father was ashamed, but said if he wasn’t better than a black man, then who was he better than? Anderson says about his father, “My old man was so full of hate that he didn’t know that bein’ poor was what was killin’ him.” Those who are in charge want to shift the blame for the poverty that they have created, not wanting their victims to realize that they and the conditions they have spawned are the real enemy. But, wealth and power can ramp up the propaganda to divert fault, and point the finger of accusation at others to be blamed as the threat to the average person’s problems. In Nazi Germany, the Jews were the targets; in the United States, it was African Americans.
Later, Anderson recognizes a man who sticks out because he drives into town in a Cadillac adorned with a Confederate flag. His name is Clayton Townley (Stephen Tobolowsky), who we discover is the area’s Grand Wizard of the KKK. In typical procedural fashion, Ward says he will check out the license plates of those with him. Anderson, instead, first goes to the barbershop to get the feel for what’s going on. He encounters Mayor Tilman (R. Lee Ermey), who emphasizes the rigidity implied in the film’s first image. He tells Anderson, “Fact is we got two cultures down here: a white culture and a colored culture. Now, that’s the way it always has been, and that’s the way it always will be.” When Anderson says how the rest of the country is progressing away from that belief, Sheriff Stuckey expresses the region’s contempt for other views when he says, “Rest of America don’t mean jack shit. You in Mississippi now.” Anderson also goes to the beauty parlor to insinuate himself with the ladies, and encounters Mrs. Pell (Frances McDormand).
The agents find out that the car used by the civil rights workers has been discovered in a swamp. The FBI men trudging through the muddy waters implies how they have to navigate through the murky deceptions of the town that is mired in the stagnation of its racial hatred. Ward wants to bring in a hundred to two hundred more men to dredge the swamp. Anderson pleads against this action, saying that this nuclear sized reaction coming from outside forces will begin a war. Ward says that the war started long before they arrived on the scene. Anderson’s pragmatism continues to slam up against Ward’s aggressive idealism.
If the war was already in progress, it then starts to escalate. There are more abductions, beatings and burnings. One young defiant boy. Aaron (Darius McCrary) helps the agents, pointing them to the sheriff’s office as being part of the Klan’s activities, and convincing another young African American to identify perpetrators (while his face is hidden behind a cardboard box). These men are brought to trial for their home invasions, but the judge suspends their sentences, saying that they were unduly put upon by outside forces which caused their extreme actions. This decision shows the futility of trying to get any justice under local laws because of how the deep-seated racial prejudice permeates all levels of the judicial system. Aaron is beaten, along with others, by Klansmen, and his bible is kicked out of his hands, outside a church after services. There is a repeat of the ironic contrast of a hymn being sung in the background as the acts of violence clash with the religious worship of those who had joined together in peaceful harmony. Aaron will eventually lose his home to a fire, and almost loses his father in an attempted lynching, which he thwarts.
While Ward interrogates Pell about the fifty minutes he was with his wife that he claims as an alibi for when the civil rights boys went missing, Anderson begins to ingratiate himself with Mrs. Pell, hoping to get information out of her. Again, Anderson uses the Southern tools of charm and decorum, while Ward employs the direct approach. Outside, Anderson says that the wife is a good person who wound up with a jerk like Pell because girls like her look for a guy all their lives to marry and then later in life are full of regrets. But, he did notice that their wedding picture showed the men had their thumbs tucked into their waist bands with three fingers visibly extended on the outside. This action is code for being members of the KKK. Thus, Pell’s association with the Klan is verified.
Ward continues to operate on a broad, intrusive scale, taking over a theater for his large operation. When the theater owner balks at their presence, he buys the theater, no matter the cost. Anderson, knowing the turf, is more surgical in his methods. He pays an unexpectant visit to a private “club” that is attended by Klansmen, including Pell. He riles Frank Bailey to the point where the man admits that he would have no problem killing black men or civil rights workers. After Bailey shoves Anderson, he puts a stranglehold on the man’s scrotum, and Frank goes down hard. Later Ward, concerned about crossing legal lines, confronts Anderson angrily about his intimidation techniques, and his semi-romantic moves on Mrs. Pell. That doesn’t stop Anderson. He visits Mrs. Pell when her husband is not at home, and brings her flowers, called trumpet pitchers. These flowers are a symbol for what is going on in the town. They are pretty looking, but they don’t smell nice. Mrs. Pell said their other name is “Ladies from Hell,” because they are carnivorous. Again, we have a reference to the misleading surface Southern congeniality covering a darker side below the surface. But, it also applies to the way Anderson is unethically manipulating Mrs. Pell. He figures out that she is not thrilled with her husband when he says he’s quite a guy, and she just looks away, without comment. He eventually exploits that disillusionment.
We have more ironic scenes as the press interview the townspeople while the multitude of federal agents dredge the swamp. One woman says African Americans are “nasty, not like white folks,” and the statement is followed by a cut to Frank Bailey attacking people. Clayton Townley says the press distorts reality, but then confirms the media’s reporting of the area’s bigotry and un-Christian behavior by saying how they reject Jews (for not accepting Christ), Catholics (for bowing down to a Roman dictator), and Turks, “Orientals,” and Negroes, because they defy white Anglo-Saxon democracy, which represents “the American way.” Later, he gives a speech at a rally, and shots of children in the audience illustrate how hatred can be passed down through the generations. It spreads like a disease. Mrs. Pell confirms this perception when Anderson visits her again. She says, “Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. . . At seven years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it. You breathe it. You marry it.” She then admits that Pell was there at the killings of the civil rights boys. Anderson, crossing ethical boundaries, holds and kisses her.
But, from Mrs. Pell they find out where the bodies are buried, and retrieve them. Sheriff Stuckey, realizing that Anderson has obtained this information from Mrs. Pell, tells his deputy he has to deal with his wife. Pell goes home with a couple of fellow Klan members, and brutally beats his wife. When Anderson sees her in the hospital, he wants revenge. He has a confrontation with Ward, who is at first reluctant to take drastic measures. He says he doesn’t want to be dragged into the gutter to get things done. But, Anderson counters by saying, “These people are crawling out of the sewer, Mr. Ward. Maybe the gutter’s where we outta be!” Ward finally concedes, saying he will do things Anderson’s way, with his small group of people (sort of his version of a black ops team). Ward says, “Whatever it takes.” It has come to that; the rules are thrown out to get the job done. Fire must be fought with fire.
Now the tables are turned. Instead of a black man being abducted, a white man is taken, Mayor Tilman. And, he is taken to a shack confronted by a black man who at first wears a KKK hood, to give this white man a taste of his own medicine. He tells a story of a black boy who was kidnapped and had his scrotum sliced off. He threatens to do the same to Tilman (the second time a local’s manhood is threatened, possibly because these individuals are not living up to the standards of true gentlemen) if he doesn’t give him the names of those involved in the killings. The mayor gives him the information. We next see the black man on a small plane taking off. He works for the FBI, but does special assignments that Anderson knew about. They know Tilman won’t say anything because the Klan will kill him for ratting them out. They discover that the attacks on the civil rights workers was Townley’s idea. Stuckey was smart enough not to be part of it, although he knew about the plan. The agents make it appear that the perpetrators called each other for a meeting at a place they have bugged. They discover that the weak link in the group is Lester Cowens (Pruitt Taylor Vince).
They show up where Lester works, pretend that they had a meeting with him, so as to make people think Lester is a collaborator. The agents, now totally working outside the law, again mimic the Klan’s tactics, in a sense becoming what they are hunting. They stage an assault on Lester’s house wearing KKK hoods, kidnap him, and make it appear that he is rescued by the FBI who were watching him. They say they will protect him if he will testify against the others, which he agrees to do.
In another illegal transgression, Anderson goes to the same community barbershop, and takes over the shaving of Pell. He cuts him a few times, and then beats him in retaliation for what he did to his wife. The shop is guarded by a couple of Anderson’s men, preventing Ward from intervening. It is significant that while Anderson assaults Pell, he mentions the deputy’s “stupid smile.” It is another reference to that outward appearance of civility which disguises the evil hiding beneath it.
The criminals, except Stuckey, who is acquitted, receive severe sentences, but on Federal civil rights violations, because the local jurisdiction would never convict the men of murder, given the racist society in which the killings took place. Anderson visits Mrs. Pell in her ransacked home, punishment for her cooperation with the FBI. He is leaving, and she tells him don’t send her any postcards from the road. She knows he can’t really romantically commit to her, that his job is what he is tied to. She says she was born in Jessup County, and will stay there, probably die there. But, she has hope because there are some decent people who know she did the right thing.
The person who eulogizes the dead black civil rights youth says he has no more love to give, and only has anger in his heart. The state of Mississippi won’t even let the black boy be buried next to his white companions, racism being perpetrated even after death. He is tired of seeing black men murdered by white men, and he wants the others at the service to share his anger. The bigoted hatred has so defiled the land, that it has invaded the sanctuary of the Christian church, where Jesus’ peaceful preachings are put in abeyance because the obtainment of justice requires that a war must be fought.
In the end, Ward and Anderson seem to have become allies. Ward finally calls Anderson by his first name, Rupert. In this story of obvious right and wrong, we allow for the Federal authorities to transgress. We might be generous and say that they transcend the law in order to achieve a higher purpose. But what if the situation were different, where things were not so clear-cut? Can the same dispensing of the rules allow for abuse instead of achieving justice? What do we do then?