From the Archives: Mr. Anderson of Mississippi Burning

For those who began watching movies only from this century, Mr. Anderson would bring images of a dark-suited Neo battling Agent Smith in the Matrix series. It was Agent Smith, played by Hugo Weaving, who by repeatedly addressing Neo as Mr. Anderson made this name so popular. But for those who have ventured into Hollywood films of the previous century, and were lucky enough to come across 1988’s Mississippi Burning, the character of Mr. Anderson would hold another meaning altogether. For that film brought forth a person with the same name who, once you have met him, will leave a mark on you for many years to come.

Mississippi Burning_Poster

Mississippi Burning shows a dark chapter in the history of the USA, dating back to 1964. Inspired by true events, the movie’s story revolves around two FBI agents who have been sent to Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights activists. The investigation unravels the deep murky society of Mississippi of that period, the segregation of blacks that was accepted as the norm, the misuse of the law by the Sheriff’s department. The authenticity with which director Alan Parker brought out the predicament of the blacks in that society, choosing a more realistic style than being overly dramatic, while weaving together a highly engaging crime mystery tale, made Mississippi Burning a well-reviewed movie by the critics. It was nominated in as many as seven categories at the Academy Awards, though won only for Best Cinematography. As of now, it holds a high score of 7.8 on Imdb.

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One of the highlights of Mississippi Burning is however the banter between the two FBI agents. One of them, Agent Alan Ward, is in-charge of the investigation; he values the law, follows the book, works hard using the right channels to uphold justice. Played by Willem Dafoe, Agent Ward is the kind of American citizen who you would want your children to idolize. Working with him, is of course, Agent Rupert Anderson, or 1988’s very own Mr. Anderson. Agent Anderson has the same goals in mind as Agent Ward, and is equally committed to honour his badge. But he is willing to do it whichever way he sees fit. He will bend rules, he will bully people, he will trick witnesses; in short, for Agent Anderson, the end justifies the means. It was a fantastic character written for the movie, made all the more enjoyable to watch given the juxtaposition with Agent Ward. The brilliance of the character though, the reason why you see him alive and kicking, the reason why you love his every dialogue, the reason why you smile when he winks playfully, is Gene Hackman.

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Gene Hackman is the hero you want in this world. The one who is driven by a fire deep within him to bring wrongdoers to justice. He is cynical, he can easily get on your nerves, but he is someone who will not quit, someone who will not rest till he has found the truth. In Mississippi Burning, it seems for a while that Agent Anderson does not really care about the case or the missing activists, but slowly we learn how deeply he does. His look of indifference is a camouflage to the rage that burns within him for the atrocities committed on the blacks. Towards the latter period of the movie, Agent Ward agrees to allow Agent Anderson to take the investigation forward using his own methods. That is when the real fun begins, as Anderson fools some of the culprits in believing their lives are in danger, and thus makes them witnesses. He does know how to intimidate too, as that scene in the bar with the local police force shows. He grabs hold of the balls of a tough looking officer, and really makes him wince, doesn’t he?

Now get this straight, Shit-kicker! Don’t you go confusin’ me with some whole other body. You must have your brains in your dick if you think we’re gonna just walk away from this. We’re gonna stay ’till this gets done.

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Anderson has a non-violent charming side too, the side which makes an officer’s wife fall for him. Frances McDormand plays the love interest of Anderson, and while the pairing sounds strange on paper, it is this strangeness that makes their relationship more romantic in the film. Agent Anderson isn’t shy of bringing out his softer side when he is in the company of McDormand’s character, and that stark contrast with his otherwise ruffian style, makes him more endearing. 

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Agent Anderson has some of the best lines in the movie; a few of my favourites are these.

[When talking on baseball] You know, it’s the only time when a black man can wave a stick at a white man and not start a riot.


Ward: Don’t drag me into your gutter, Mr. Anderson!

Anderson: These people are crawling out of the sewer, Mr. Ward! Maybe the gutter’s where we outta be!


How ’bout you, Deputy. That gun of yours just for show or do you get to shoot people once in a while?


Make no mistake about it, Deputy. I’ll cut your fucking head clean off and not give a shit how it reads in the report sheet!


[On Ward] Ballsy little bastard, isn’t he?

Gene Hackman was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his performance as Mr. Anderson, though lost out on both to Dustin Hoffman for his performance in Rain Man. It’s tough to beat that one! But Gene Hackman has immortalized Mr. Anderson for me. In today’s world where segregation has not died the death it should have, and where hatred on grounds of race and religion keeps rearing its ugly head, it is not the Chosen One from Matrix who can rescue us, but men of such values and valour as Mr. Anderson of Mississippi Burning whom we need.


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