Three voter registration workers disappeared in rural 1964 Mississippi; this film gives an acute sense of how the case planted a milestone on the long march toward racial justice, and refuted complaints that the men vanished as a Northern liberal hoax. It's also a gritty, passionate, even funny police drama. Two FBI men investigate: Anderson (Hackman) is a good old boy who was a sheriff; Ward (Dafoe), one of R.F. Kennedy's bright young Justice Department men, keeps a low profile, hanging around a barber shop. Ward calls in hundreds of agents and the National Guard. Each man wants to be in charge.
The slick country-clubbing mayor calls the two "rabble-rousers"; Pell (Dourif), his shifty deputy, has an alibi, but needs his wife (McDormand), who has taken a lot from her self-hating racist husband, to verify it. Anderson thinks the sheriff took the three men to the Klan to be murdered; he visits Mrs. Pell, makes small talk, acts bashful, lets his voice trail off. She wants to be played, and he's fallen for her, wanting to rescue her.
Their relationship contrasts local black fears. That community probably knows who murdered the men, but the Klan burns a family's home so their son won't talk, and terror fills that neighborhood. Ward questions a black man in a segregated luncheonette; the man won't talk, but still gets beaten by the Klan. Director Parker understates; we know what can happen to "bad nigras."
The bodies at last are found and the murderers identified, as we're reminded of the look, feel, and smell of racism, which racists thought sexy, and compensation for feeling worthless. The film evokes how blacks' rights were routinely denied. The civil rights movement was the finest in modern American history, a painful hour in which we improved, and the South and whole nation grew, as we grasped the full idea that people are equal, with inalienable rights. Official racism is no longer law.
Apart from pure entertainment, this great American crime movie makes an important statement about a time and condition that we should remember. McDormand portrays a woman beaten into accepting her man as her master, but finally rejects that because she sees it's wrong to mistreat people. That quiet, shy, fearful woman's moral decision represents a generation that finally said, What's going on here is not right.
Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand
Voter registration workers murdered in Mississippi
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