I don't know much about the situation in the South before the present day. For that matter, I don't know much about it now. I have no idea if things were as bad as they were portrayed in the movie. Having seen pictures of lynchings, though, as well as the festival-like atmosphere that accompanied them, I can't imagine that the film was too far off base. The atmosphere of fear and hate that pervades the film is almost visible. It's hard to imagine anyone being able to survive it with their humanity intact.
Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as the two FBI agents are an interesting study in contrasts. Hackman, as a former Good Ol' Boy sheriff, sees stublety and patience as the necessary tools to solve the three civil rights workers' disappearances. Dafoe, as a Kennedy recruit from the Justice Department, sees an intense show of federal strength and sheer investigative force as the way to go. Dafoe is an idealist, Hackman is a realist. The one thing they have in common is a disgust for the way blacks are treated in the South. I must admit I found Hackman's performance more convincing than Dafoe's, perhaps because his was a more complex character. A product of two worlds, one of racism and one of unity, his must not have been an easy life. And of course, Frances McDormand is brilliant as the long-suffering wife of a Klan member/Sheriff's deputy. She is disgusted with what's going on with blacks in her town, but cannot do anything about it. Her sense of fear and entrapment in a prison of hate have a claustrophobic feel to them that is palpable.
I do wish the movie hadn't used quite so many stereotypes in its potrayals of secondary characters, particularly blacks. I don't think there was a single scene in the movie that didn't show blacks as being the victims of some hate crime or other. It got so bad I couldn't see a black face without getting nervous for his or her continued good health. Surely *someone* in the black community decided to say "enough is enough"?
Also, the idea that everyone in Mississippi was (a) in the KKK, (b) black, or (c) a passive, approving bystander is an injustice to human nature. Situations are always more complex than they seem, and this one was no different, I'm sure. Oh well, it's not entirely the director's fault. He only had two hours.
This movie understands racism, is able to dig into the wellspring of hatred and sniveling and air it to the world. I've never been able to completely comprehend racism on anything other than an intellectual level. That it existed, I never had any doubt, but it's one thing to know it, but it's something else to really *know* it. And once you do know it, it's like staring in a funhouse mirror. You can see the image, but you're unable to force the shape you see into the shape you *think* should be there. This movie provides you with that gut abilty.
This movie has been unfairly and recklessly attacked by overeager movie critics and experts on social affairs, all of whom feel guilty about praising such an important and powerful piece of film making (they don't DARE want to be called racist for praising the film!).
The most common criticism is that this movie doesn't have any strong Black characters. This is absolutely false. There are several strong Black characters in this movie. There is a scene where a Black preacher gives a strong condemnation about the killings of the young men. There are several scenes with a brave young Black child, deeply religious, who somehow manages to find courage amongst his tears and fright (in one exceptional scene, he doesn't run away during a Klan disruption of a church gathering, instead, he kneels and prays). And in the most controversial and powerful scene in the entire movie, a strong Black father (father of the previously mentioned young boy), fed up with the racists, goes out into the night with a shotgun shouting that he will not take this abuse anymore.
The other major criticism is that the movie focuses on White characters. This is not valid. I do certainly agree that many Hollywood movies tend to center the action around White actors, even if the story is about minorities (i.e., Come See the Paradise, Windtalkers, etc. etc.) However, this is one case where it was absolutely necessary for the story to be seen through the eyes of two White FBI agents. The two White agents (Gene Hackman in one of the greatest movie performances of all time) represent the opposite spectrum of the evil Southern racists. Just as the Southerners see the world in their segregated view, the two FBI agents see the world in their enlightened and open view, and in fact they stand for many White people that not only gave their lives for the cause of Civil Rights, but made their voices heard and actions seen so that segregation would one day end. The Civil Rights era is as much a story about White Americans as it is Black Americans, so I applaud the filmmakers for being courageous about this.
I recently watched the DVD version and it affected me as much as when I first saw it, and I make it a point to see several times a year. There are scenes that are so heartbreaking they will leave you in tears, and moments of beauty and power so self assured that you know you are watching a masterpiece that will one day stand the test of time. This movie is required viewing for all of the youth in America today, many of whom are clueless as to the Civil Rights period (and others simply do not care).