Reviewed by: Brett Willis
Mature Teen to Adult
2 hr. 7 min.
Year of Release:
This story is loosely based on events surrounding the murders of three ’60s civil-rights activists by the Ku Klux Klan.
When the three voter-registration workers mysteriously disappear, the FBI immediately steps in, based on their suspicion that it’s more than a simple missing-persons case. That assumption is correct; the opening scenes show us that they were murdered, and that law enforcement personnel were probably involved in the murders. Agent Ward (Willem Dafoe) is in charge of the investigation; but Agent Anderson (Gene Hackman), who was once a Mississippi sheriff himself, has a better feel for how to get things done among Southerners. The two agree on the goal, but constantly disagree on how best to achieve it. When Ward brings in more agents, resentful KKK members respond with a terrorism campaign against the black community. Finally, Anderson gets permission to use his preferred methods (which are just as ruthless as those of the Klan).
The film’s violence is pervasive and disturbing. Those used to TV police dramas, where the cops use lying and trickery or set two suspects against each other, will be only partially prepared for Anderson’s tactics; he has FBI agents pose as Klan, and he plays up (romantically and otherwise) to the wife of a deputy sheriff whom he suspects of involvement in the murders. But having already watched over an hour of both directed and random acts of violence against blacks (beatings, lynchings, firebombing of homes and churches), many viewers will consider Anderson’s actions as partially justified. Profanity is extreme. Sexual content is limited to Anderson’s approach to the deputy’s wife (Frances McDormand)—there’s a long-range camera shot where they appear to be kissing—and to threatened and actual attacks on men’s genitals.
I’m disgusted by the racist beliefs which many whites are shown as holding (and which some people still hold today and may even try to justify with Scripture). But I must admit that there’s a grain of truth in some of the statements that the film’s stereotyped Southerners make—such as the references to communist outside agitators. As a former ’60s civil-rights activist myself, I remember that when we were trying to reverse the expulsions of about a hundred black students at my college, Marxists from other schools kept showing up and butting into our demonstrations. For many of the outsiders, the priority was not getting the expelled students back in school, but rather milking the incident for the greatest amount of disruption. In private planning sessions, some of them tried to persuade us moderates to help shut down the entire school or even torch it (left-wing and right-wing extremists can sound remarkably similar). Whether it’s race relations, equality for women or labor-management disputes, communists are taught to take any issue and constantly stir it up, never let it be solved peacefully. Jesus, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), is just the opposite. When His kingdom is established, all strife will cease. I’m glad He’s already put peace into my heart and I don’t need to hate anyone.