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Mississippi Burning (1988)

R  |   |  Crime, Drama, Mystery  |  27 January 1989 (USA)
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Ratings: 7.8/10 from 61,744 users   Metascore: 65/100
Reviews: 171 user | 46 critic | 11 from

Two FBI agents with wildly different styles arrive in Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of some civil rights activists.



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Title: Mississippi Burning (1988)

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Won 1 Oscar. Another 18 wins & 22 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Mrs. Pell
Sheriff Ray Stuckey
Lester Cowens
Badja Djola ...
Agent Monk
Agent Bird
Thomas B. Mason ...
Judge (as Tom Mason)
Rick Zieff ...


Two FBI agents investigating the murder of civil rights workers during the 60s seek to breach the conspiracy of silence in a small Southern town where segregation divides black and white. The younger agent trained in FBI school runs up against the small town ways of his former Sheriff partner. Written by Keith Loh <>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


1964. When America was at war with itself.


R | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

27 January 1989 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Three Lives for Mississippi  »

Filming Locations:


Box Office


$15,000,000 (estimated)


$34,603,943 (USA)

Company Credits

Production Co:

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


Features the first credited acting role of Tobin Bell in a theatrical motion picture. See more »


When Anderson throws Pell into the chairs at the barbershop, the stuntman has a different hairstyle (balding, with a comb-over) than Pell. See more »


[first lines]
Driver: Uh, oh.
Passenger: What is it?
Passenger: [seeing the car behind them] What do they want?
Driver: I don't know... just pass me... pass me...
Driver: [trying to identify the following car] Is it a cop?
Passenger: I can't see.
[they are hit from behind]
Driver: What the fuck are these jokers playin' at?
Rear passenger: Oh, they ain't playin', you better believe it.
See more »


Referenced in The Commitments (1991) See more »


When We All Get to Heaven
Words by Eliza E. Hewitt
Music by Emily D. Wilson
Performed by Lannie Spann McBride, Barbara Gibson, Alisa R. Patrick
See more »

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User Reviews

11 August 2004 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

Well, I guess this is why movies are so personal to the viewer.

I've read some of the other comments here and have seen words like "condescending" and "mediocre."

I couldn't disagree more. "Mississippi Burning" is an intellectually challenging movie. It demands that you immerse yourself in the worst of southern culture, whether you like it or not.

Based on a true story, the film takes place in 1964 (my birth year, incidentally) in a small town ugly and virulent with racism. The good ol' boy sheriff and his stoolies ambush and in cold blood murder three civil rights workers. The world's a-changing, but the power-brokers in this place refuse to let that happen. They'll do anything to prevent blacks from taking their rightful place at the table - literally.

The FBI sends a couple of mismatched agents in to search for the three missing young men. One agent (Hackman) is 'old school', sly, and knows his enemies a little too well. The other (Dafoe) is a naive Kennedy fire-eater, ready to bring the full force of the FBI and military down upon this small town's head. Although he is easy to underestimate at first, he grows into his role, showing astonishing decisiveness and strength.

The relationship between the town's blacks and whites is complicated and fraught with rules - spoken and unspoken. It's a not-so-secret secret that the civil rights workers have been murdered. Hackman and Dafoe just have to get the bodies and the evidence, that's all. Fear and loathing prevent that from happening, until the wife of a deputy (the amazing Frances McDormand) throws herself on the fire and blows her slimy husband's alibi.

There is justice - of a sort - in the end. It's not enough. Real change crawls on it's belly in the south.

"Mississippi Burning" is a movie of operatic gestures. The script is spongey with regional color and snappy, powerful dialogue.

Hackman and McDormand are simply magical. They don't take or make a false step from the first frame to the last. As she would go on to prove in later films, McDormand doesn't just 'play' a character - she IS that character. And Hackman is never more affecting that in this film. One syllable from him is more subtle than an entire Shakespeare speech when delivered by a lesser actor. Hackman is a national treasure.

IMO, Dafoe is a well-meaning revelation until circumstances forces him to cave into Hackman's just-get-it-done ways. He comes to see that idealism must relent to pragmatism in extreme cases, although that knowledge repulses him. He wants nothing more than to get out of the south and go home to a world he believes is cleaner and more simple.

The conclusion of "Mississippi" is more bitter than sweet. The guilty are arrested and convicted, although their various punishments are a joke. (R. Lee Ermey is the only one in the bunch who meets a just fate.) McDormand is brutally beaten to within an inch of her life for betraying the status quo and doing the right thing. Although she and Hackman have fallen in love, she refuses to leave with him because "this" - gesturing to the vandalized ruins of the house she was born in - "is my home."

I know the history, and I know this movie inside and out. And yet I still bawl like a baby every time I see it. The power of this film and the fact that "Mississippi" is based on ACTUAL EVENTS never fails to get to me.

"Mississippi Burning" has a place in my 'Top 50 Dramas.'

21 of 25 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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