In an ideal world, Ghosts of Mississippi would be about how the widow of Medgar Evers and the people of Mississippi finally got justice thirty years after the civil rights leader's assassination. But Hollywood is not an ideal world--never has been--so Rob Reiner's well-meaning, hand-wringing movie is really about the huge load of racial guilt the white Jackson prosecutor who reopened the case had to carry up the courtroom steps.
Sound familiar? The movie industry scarcely seems to notice whenever it devalues the civil rights movement in favor of liberal consciousness-raising in a picture like Mississippi Burning or The Long Walk Home or A Time to Kill. The irony is particularly keen here, since the story is "true": While Whoopi Goldberg's Myrlie Evers is reduced to cliche sainthood, Alec Baldwin's Grisham-esque lawyer, Bobby DeLaughter, fights all the demons, gets all the screen time and emerges the hero. If we are to believe Reiner and screenwriter Lewis Colick (Unlawful Entry), the Evers case is really about him.
Even the movie's killer outranks Myrlie Evers and her family. As Byron De La Beckwith, the detestable white supremacist who gunned down Evers in 1963 but remained loud and free thanks to "Southern justice," brilliant James Woods gets to age thirty years, pinch his face into all sorts of ugly sneers and spew venom to his heart's content--the kinds of things Oscar voters eat up. We learn a lot about De La Beckwith and more than we need to know about Bobby DeLaughter. But we don't get much Medgar Evers. Briefly, we do get two of his sons, Van and Darrell, playing themselves. Daughter Reena is portrayed by Yolanda King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.
Granted, DeLaughter's road was a tough one. After De La Beckwith weathered two all-white hung juries in the Sixties, the rifle he used to kill Evers vanished, along with the trial transcripts and other evidence. Over the years, witnesses died. Faced with a cold trail, Myrlie Evers's skepticism and resistance from Jackson's white establishment, the energized assistant DA had to persevere. Even his Southern belle wife (Virginia Madsen) and his own parents tried to stand in the way, we're told. But, hey, when a guy's single-handedly building the New South and saving black souls, how much trouble can a vandalized car and a string of hate calls really be? If you're any good, you dig up new evidence, haul the old murderer back into court and, this time, get a conviction.
This gives Baldwin, who works hard throughout Ghosts of Mississippi, the chance to make another impassioned closing argument to a jury--this one racially mixed. Bobby talks to his little kids about tolerance. Blue eyes shining, he also gets to deliver the ultimate mea culpa: "We never get even for all the wrong we've done."
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Probably not. Not so long as Hollywood keeps shoving what should be principal black characters to the back of the bus in high-minded, wrong-headed movies like this one.
Ghosts of Mississippi.
Screenplay by Lewis Colick. Produced and directed by Rob Reiner. With Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, James Woods and Craig T. Nelson.