Tag Archives: Willem Dafoe

Mississippi Burning (1988)

What if people on the left had real state power? We’ve all dreamed about it. What if we finally put on our brass knuckles and punched the nearest teabagger in the face? What if the federal government went back into the south, took over the same Florida court system that’s legalized killing blacks, and “stood its ground.” What if we finally broke the Neo Confederate cancer that’s ruining America once and for all?

The fantasy of state power, and state power in the right hands, is at the center of Alan Parker’s 1988 Mississippi Burning. Mississippi Burning is one of a series of big-budget, Hollywood movies from the late 1980s and early 1990s that helped rehabilitate the public image of the FBI after the beating it took in the 1970s. Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film Silence of the Lambs re-imagines the FBI as a plucky young woman who saves a Senator’s daughter from a cross-dressing serial killer. 1987’s The Untouchables takes us back to the FBI’s heroic early days, where a clean cut all-American boy saves Chicago from Al Capone. Mississippi Burning not only rehabilitates the Bureau. It rehabilitates Cointelpro.

As the film opens, we are in a car on a back country road in Mississippi. Three young men, loosely fictionalized versions of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, are being pursued by two cars, a pickup truck, and a police car. It’s a terrifying scene, especially since anybody who’s studied the history of the Civil Rights Movement knows exactly what’s going to happen. The local police are working with the Klan and the Klan is working with the local police police. “All I’ve got left is a nigger,” one of the Klansman says after the three young men are murdered in cold blood. “But at least I shot me a nigger.”

In the next scene we are in a Chevy Impala driving south out of Tennessee and into Mississippi. The driver, Agent Ward, is a senior FBI agent. He’s stiff, formal, and dressed in the classic FBI uniform of a dark suit and a white shirt. He’s got a severe pair of eyeglasses that codes him as “Ivy League intellectual.” Ward’s companion, Agent Rupert Anderson played by a brilliant Gene Hackman, is his opposite. In addition to being a rehabilitation of Cointelpro, Mississippi Burning is also a buddy movie. Anderson’s an easy going good ol boy from the south, a former small town sheriff from Thornton Mississippi. He’s reading from the case file, or, rather, he’s singing, having a good laugh at a KKK drinking song. You’d never guess judging by his rumpled, laid back dress that he works for J. Edgar Hoover.

Rupert Anderson is as much of a liberal as Agent Ward. The contrast between the two men is not so much their ideology as their style. Anderson wants to keep things low key, to sniff around without drawing any unnecessary attention to themselves. Ward doesn’t see it that way. After both agents are attacked by the Klan, who burn a cross in front of their motel room, Ward makes a phone call to Washington. Soon Jessup County Mississippi is crawling with FBI agents. The FBI, in effect, becomes an occupying army. They take over the town’s movie theater. They buy the motel, and eventually establish a kind of “dual power.” The FBI has all the muscle. They can go anywhere they want anytime they want.

But the Klan still controls the local police, city government, and courts. Jessup County’s blacks know the FBI’s occupation is no more permanent than Radical Reconstruction, that all the agents will be going back home as soon as they find the bodies of the three civil rights workers. The FBI can’t even find the bodies of the murdered Civil Rights workers anyway. Ward’s big government liberalism has hit a dead end. Anderson, however, is beginning to make progress.

The Klan and their chief asset in the local police,  Deputy Clinton Pell, soon learn that Rupert Anderson is not a man to be fucked with. Clinton Pell is a spectacularly nasty little man, a strutting little cock of the walk who keeps the town’s blacks, and his own wife, in a perpetual state of terror. After Anderson realizes that Pell’s wife is the weak link, that she’s been coerced into giving her husband an alibi for the night of the murder, he cracks the case. She tells him where the bodies of the civil rights workers are buried. Deputy Pell, knowing that he’s in deep trouble, and that it was almost certainly his wife who ratted him out, beats her to a pulp and sends her to the hospital.

Clinton Pell will soon regret beating his wife. The last 30 minutes of Mississippi Burning are the payoff we’ve been waiting for. Agent Ward, the film’s stand in for John F. Kennedy, has finally had enough. It’s time to release the hell hounds of Cointelpro against Deputy Clinton Pell and Jessup County’s Ku Klux Klan. Anderson tortures Clinton Pell in a barber shop. He slaps him around like the nasty little fascist he is. While Agent Ward seems to have some qualms about the FBI torturing a suspect, we don’t. Clinton Pell  deserves every once of the beating he gets. Ward, Anderson, and another group of agents crash a KKK meeting, writing down license plate numbers while the Klansmen whine about their Constitutional rights. They set the Klansmen against one another. Three FBI agents kidnaps one Klansman and pretends to lynch him before other agents “rescue” him. He’s more than willing to talk.

In other words, Anderson and Ward go through Jessup County Mississippi like Sherman marching through Georgia. What would it look like if the bad asses and strongmen were on the side of the left instead of the right? It would look like Mississippi Burning.

Alas, Parker has waived the red cape. We charged like a bull. It’s a fake out.

While it’s true that the American ruling class by 1964 was ready to get rid of Jim Crow and Johnson did lean on J. Edgar Hoover to solve the murders of Schwener, Cheney and Goodman, Mississippi Burning essentially writes SNCC out of history. The FBI went into Mississippi in 1964 because grassroots activists forced them to. They occupied lunch counters. They road segregated buses. They registered voters. Mississippi Burning, while briefly acknowledging the grassroots activism of the Civil Rights Movement, gives most of the credit to the FBI. We’re even shown Agent Ward marching with black activists in a funeral procession.

Indeed, J. Edgar Hoover was a racist himself. Far more FBI dirty tricks were directed against the Civil Rights Movement than against the Klan. What’s more, throughout Mississippi Burning, blacks are shown almost exclusively as terrified victims. They’re lynched, castrated, put into cages, terrorized. If I were black this film would have sent me into a rage. That’s entirely the intention. By the time Pell beats up his wife, we’re ready to see a black character, any black character hit back. We get that avenging black man in the form of a “specialty man” Anderson sends to Washington for. Anderson’s “specialty man” kidnaps the Klan friendly mayor, takes him to a shack out in the backwoods, and tortures him into spilling his guts.

Mississippi Burning, unlike Zero Dark Thirty, is gleefully pro-torture. But we’ve been had, fooled, bamboozled. In reality, the “specialty man” who helped break the case in Philadelphia Mississippi wasn’t an avenging black man at all, but Gregory Scarpa, the chief enforcer for the Colombo Crime Family.

“In the summer of 1964, according to Schiro and other sources,” Wikipedia tells us. “FBI field agents in Mississippi recruited Scarpa to come to Mississippi to help them find missing civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. The FBI was convinced the three men had been murdered, but could not find their graves. The agents thought that Scarpa, using illegal interrogation techniques not available to agents, might succeed at gaining this information from suspects. Once Scarpa arrived in Mississippi, local FBI agents allegedly provided him with a gun and money to pay for information. Scarpa and an FBI agent allegedly pistol-whipped and kidnapped Lawrence Byrd, a TV salesman and secret Klansman, from his store in Laurel and took him to Camp Shelby, a local Army base. At Shelby, Scarpa severely beat Byrd and stuck a gun barrel down his throat. The terrified Byrd finally revealed to Scarpa the location of the civil rights workers’ graves.”

‘The FBI has never officially confirmed the Scarpa story,” Wikipedia also tells us. But the FBI has a long history of involvement with organized crime. In the single case of Schwener, Chaney and Goodman, it might have done good. In every other case,  those mobsters on the FBI payroll were strong arming labor leaders not Klansmen. We’ve been had.

We’ve succumbed to temptation, the dangerous fantasy of state power.

Out of the Furnace (2013)

In their illustrated novel Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco talk about “economic sacrifice zones.” Camden, New Jersey, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, McDowell County, West Virginia are pockets of poverty and despair so isolated and so cut off from the American mainstream they might as well be somewhere in the Third World. Out of the Furnace, Scott Cooper’s film staring Christian Bale as a Western Pennsylvania steel worker, is a deeply flawed attempt to make a film about this side of the United States.

In spite of some excellent performances by a cast of A-list Hollywood actors, Woody Harrelson, Bale, Sam Shepherd, Willem Defoe, and Casey Affleck, Out of the Furnace is a terrible movie. It’s often laughably anachronistic. It’s dull. It’s violent without having any clear idea about how it feels about the violence it portrays. The excellent Winter’s Bone, which was made for one-tenth the cost, 2 million dollars as opposed to Out of the Furnace’s 20 million dollars, showed us back in 2010 that you could indeed make a successful film about an “economic sacrifice zone.” So what went wrong?

I think Out of the Furnace might have failed precisely because it had an A-list cast and a 20 million dollar budget. Big stars and big budgets restrict a director’s freedom as much as they enable him to make a good film. Here’s what I think happened. While you do of course have every right to make a film about an “economic sacrifice zone,” you don’t have a right to investors, to funding. People won’t put up money for a film they don’t think will make money. Winter’s Bone, which starred Jennifer Lawrence when she was still a relative unknown, slipped through the cracks. It was a low-budget movie with a future mega-star. The Wire is a TV show. But Out of the Furnace, as a relatively big budget, relatively mainstream film had to follow certain conventions.

So how does poverty “make it through the censors,” which, in the United States? It’s rare, of course, for a mainstream film to feature poor, unattractive people. But there are certain formats you can work in if you’re interested in making a film about an economic sacrifice zone. You can make a crime drama. Police procedurals and detective shows are where you see the poor on TV.  You might, of course, argue that for most people people in America, cops are omnipresent. You get stopped and frisked on the way to work. You come home and watch the police respond to the domestic disturbance next door. But you’re not going to show an A-list Hollywood actor getting stopped and frisked or waiting in line for a payday loan at the check cashing store. So you need to dramatize poverty indirectly, circle around it, suggest rather than show outright, leave some room for the central protagonist to become a “hero.”

Out of the Furnace squares the circle by way of a revenge drama. It opens at a drive in. Note above what I said about “anachronistic.” We’re never told where the drive-in is located but we see Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat, who we later learn is one of the Ramapo Valley Indians of Bergen Country, New Jersey, terrorizing his girlfriend. When a man in the next car tries to stop it, DeGroat savagely beats him in the parking-lot. This is not a man, we’re shown, who we really want to run into in a dark alley. Bergen County New Jersey, of course, is by no definition an “economic sacrifice zone,” but the hills above Mahwah, where the Ramapo Mountain Indians live, is an isolated, often misunderstood place. So there you have it. Poverty and isolation is embodied by one irrational, violent criminal. That he’s portrayed by a big star also means he has to be a seriously badass violent, irrational criminal, not just an idiot who shoots his mother for her welfare check or knocks over a convenience store.

The movie then shifts to North Braddock, a decayed industrial city just outside of Pittsburgh, not, strictly speaking, an economic sacrifice zone either, but still run down, a place that has seen better days. We meet Russell Baze, Bale, who works in a local steel mill as a welder. The aesthetics of North Braddock appear to have been lifted whole cloth right out of the Deer Hunter. There is in fact still an operational steel mill in North Braddock, but I doubt it’s a big part of the local economy anymore. I’m not exactly sure what North Braddock looks like these days, but this North Braddock appears to be stuck in a 1970s time warp. Restored muscle cars, dark, grimy working class bars, old men dying next to plastic statutes of the Virgin Mary, there are no desktop computers, no Starbucks, no big box stores or fast food places. A mobile phone will play a key role in the plot, but this is my father’s Western Pennsylvania, not mine. There is some good cinematography in Out of the Furnace. A road trip Russell Baze takes to Mahwah, New Jersey — portrayed by Independence Township Pennsylvania — is simultaneously beautiful and menacing. But, for the most part, Scott Cooper seems to be “sampling” from the Deer Hunter because he’s unsure of how to shoot the current day suburbs of Pittsburgh. Deborah Granik, in Winters Bone, by contrast, not only shows us the authentic Ozark “economic sacrifice zone” of Arkansas and Missouri, she shows so much of it it almost starts to look like a documentary.

We also meet Russell Baze’s younger brother Rodney, an Iraq War veteran who, since he has trouble settling down and getting a job, has gotten mixed up with some local gangsters, the bare-knuckled fight scene, and, ultimately, Harlan DeGroat. Why a local gangster and drug dealer in northern New Jersey is mixed up in a similar scene all the way out in Western Pennsylvania is never quite explained. In spite of Russell’s efforts to save his brother, efforts that include signing over his entire paycheck to pay his debt, Rodney agrees to participate in a bare-knuckled match out in New Jersey, where, in exchange for “taking a dive,” DeGroat agrees to forgive him and John Petty, Defoe, the money they owe. Petty and Rodney drive out to New Jersey. Rodney takes the dive as agreed, but, for some reason never explained, Harlan DeGroat murders them both.

The murder staged in Out of the Furnace, and the apparently lack of motivation, has, in the real world, led to some members of the Ramapo Mountain tribe to bring a law suit against Scott Cooper and the producers of Out of the Furnace. Since DeGroat is a common name among the Ramapo Mountain people and since Harrelson’s character is so irredeemably vicious, they’ve accused the film of being nothing less than a “hate crime.” It is indeed a little baffling as to why Cooper would have an isolated little rural slum in New Jersey play such a large role in a film about Western Pennsylvania but I suspect it has something to do with wanting to address racial tensions in Braddock — which is now 60 percent black — without having to deal with any fallout. Although Cooper casts two fine black actors, Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana, in insignificant roles, the racial “other” is played by the white, Anglo Saxon Woody Harrelson as a Ramapo Mountain “Indian.” Cooper jumped out of the frying pan and landed right in the fire.

In any event, while in Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s Uncle Teardrop and an associated family of meth cookers embody the poverty, desperation and violence of an “economic sacrifice zone,” in Out of the Furnace, Harrelson does it all by himself. It doesn’t work. While Harrelson certainly knows how to play a violent, depraved criminal, it comes off more like a star turn than anything that speaks to the society of either the Ramapo Mountain People or of Western Pennsylvania. Russell’s revenge, where Bale lures Harrelson back to Braddock on the pretext of collecting a debt, is as implausible as it is dramatically unconvincing. A scary crime lord like DeGroat didn’t have lackeys willing to drive out and collect the money? Nobody’s ever heard of PayPal or money orders? What’s more, it makes no sense that a welder would suddenly transform himself into a badass killing machine. Knowing how to fire a hunting rifle never made anybody Dirty Harry. It would have, in fact, made a lot more sense to have had Rodney, as an Iraq War Vet, avenge Russell, his hard working civilian brother. Surely they teach people how to kill in the army, but, once again, the economics of the film override its dramatic logic. Christian Bale is a bigger star than Casey Affleck, so he had to play the hero.

Indeed, Russell’s transformation into an avenger contrasts poorly with Jennifer Lawrence’s Rhea Dolly. Winter’s Bone is dramatically effective precisely because Rhea has to overcome her terror, precisely because she’s a 17-year-old girl without protection, stuck in an economic sacrifice zone where she and her younger brother and sister are about to lose their house. Winter’s Bone brings us into that economic sacrifice zone because it brings us into the mind of a young woman who understands what it means, but doesn’t fully understand what it means. The film is a learning process. Out of the Furnace, by contrast, is just another macho action flick. It’s not the worst movie ever made, but it’s a criminal waste of talent.

Forget about Out of the Furnace. Watch Winter’s Bone. Read Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Dig your out your old VHS copy of the Deer Hunter, and, if you’re still in the mood, take a drive up to the Ramapo Mountains. I’m 100% sure you won’t get killed.