Mississippi Burning is an all-names-changed dramatization of the Ku Klux Klan's murders of three civil rights workers in 1964. Investigating the mysterious disappearances of the three activists are FBI agents Gene Hackman (older, wiser) and Willem Dafoe (younger, idealistic). A Southerner himself, Hackman charms and cajoles his way through the tight-lipped residents of a dusty Mississippi town while Dafoe acts upon the evidence gleaned by his partner. Hackman solves the case by exerting his influence upon beauty-parlor worker Frances McDormand, who wishes to exact revenge for the beatings inflicted upon her by her Klan-connected husband Brad Dourif. Many critics took the film to task for its implication that the Civil Rights movement might never have gained momentum without its white participants; nor were the critics happy that the FBI was shown to utilize tactics as brutal as the Klan's. The title Mississippi Burning is certainly appropriate: nearly half the film is taken up with scenes of smoke and flame.
by Hal Erickson synopsis