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Ghosts of Mississippi Print E-mail
Tuesday, 18 January 2000

Ghosts Of Mississippi
Warner Bros. Home Video
MPAA rating: PG-13
starring: Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, James Woods, Craig T. Nelson, Susanna Thompson, Lucas Black, William H. Macy, Lloyd Bennett
release year: 1996
film rating: Three and a half stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Louis Colick's script for GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI is, by all reports, scrupulously authentic in all major details; Rob Reiner's direction is carefully paced, sober and responsible; some of the actors are particularly good. The movie deals with a compelling, important and still-timely issue, the 1963 murder of Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and the attempts to convict the murderer of his crime.

So why does it seem so pat and calculated?

Perhaps the filmmakers got too close to the leading players in the story; many of the real-life participants visited the sets -- some even play themselves Assistant District Attorney Bobby Delaughter (Alec Baldwin) and Myrlie Evers (Whoopi Goldberg), Medgar's widow, are portrayed as virtual saints. Surely the real people must be more complicated, saltier, more human than they're depicted here.

Judged as reportage, the film is impressive. In 1963, Medgar Evers was shot in the back from ambush. He died in the arms of his wife Myrlie and his three young children. Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods), the Ku Klux Klan member and outspoken white supremacist who shot Evers, was tried twice in the 1960s for the crime, but both trials ended in hung juries. It didn't help the prosecution's case when Ross Barnett, the former governor of Mississippi, callously shook Beckwith's hand during a trial.

After a quick recap of Evers' assassination, the movie proper begins in October of 1989, when some new information comes to light that might permit another trial. Beckwith is a crusty old bastard who's even more outspoken about white supremacy, but who's too smart to specifically admit to killing Evers. Jackson, Miss., assistant D.A. Delaughter is reluctant to take on the retrial of Beckwith: he's plugged into the local social elite; his wife Dixie (Virginia Madsen) is the daughter of a late judge well-known to be racist.

Myrlie Evers returns to Jackson when the case is reopened, but she is skeptical of anyone, particularly a local white man like Bobby, being able to make any headway. The murder took place 26 years before, the case the archives is very thin, the rifle and bullet can't be found, many of the witnesses are long dead, and without new evidence, the case really can't be reopened. But her dignified skepticism actually spurs Bobby on.

Nothing does this more than his visit to the Evers home; he discovers he has a lot in common with Evers. Across two and a half decades and the racial barrier, Bobby identifies with the murdered man, and gradually becomes a zealot about the case. Disgusted, Dixie feels that Bobby has ruined her social standing, and she walks out on him and their three children.

Two investigators, Charlie Crisco (William H. Macy) and Benny Bennett (playing himself), are assigned to help Bobby try to uncover the necessary new evidence. Gradually, they begin to put the case back together, sometimes in ways that are so bizarre an unlikely that if this stuff had turned up in fiction on this subject, it would have been dismissed as preposterous contrivance -- but all of this really happened.

Reiner tries to avoid stressing the more melodramatic elements, but he cannot avoid sanctifying both Delaughter and Myrlie Evers. Baldwin is generally good, but he seems most authentic in scenes not directly related to the Evers case. Goldberg is a tower of dignity, but she's rarely allowed to be human as well. As with Baldwin, her performance is fine -- it's the writing that interferes. Both roles would have been more dramatic and interesting if there had been some suggestion that her intransigence bordered on pig-headedness rather than utterly understandable caution. Myrlie Evers, now the head of the NAACP, must be a strong, forthright woman -- and people like that are not always pleasant.

James Woods is sensational as "Delay" Beckwith. He realizes that even a rotten bastard like this guy can actually be funny on some levels, and Woods runs with this particular ball. He makes Beckwith into the kind of character you love to hate, bringing an entirely new dimension to the movie. I don't give a damn if the real Beckwith is like this or not; all I know is that Woods gives an intense, scary and funny performance as the dried-up old racist. You never like or admire Beckwith, but you're glad when he's on screen; the movie stops feeling like a shrine and starts feeling like a movie. Woods is always good, and always a little over the top -- and I wouldn't have him any other way.

The cast is generally admirable, including the people who are playing themselves. Craig T. Nelson, Lucas Black, William H. Macy and Terry O'Quinn are particularly good. And technically, the film is very well-made. The period is believably evoked, through the production design by Lily Kilvert; the photography, by John Seale, is clean and handsome. Marc Shaiman, who's worked with Reiner before, did the adequate but not memorable score.

It is very appropriate to we learn more about Medgar Evers; too many people, blacks as well as whites, have forgotten that he raised the issue of segregation at the University of Mississippi Law School in 1954, when he was turned down for admission because of his race. "The Medgar Evers Story" remains to be told, and it's worth telling.

But GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI, as well intentioned as it is, is yet another movie about how much white people do for the Civil Rights movement. It is, after all, not a movie about Medgar Evers, but about his murder, and about how a dedicated young white man brought his killer to justice at last. Granted, Bobby Delaughter deserves endless praise for his perseverance in the face of doubt and opposition.

GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI is, finally, a respectable movie, but not an exceptional one. The performances by most of the cast are very good, the story is worth telling, but something prevented Rob Reiner from making the film the powerful testament it could have been.

This applies to the DVD as well. Technically, it's fine, with good sound and color, but it has no extras at all. Couldn't Warners have found someone -- a historian, if not Reiner -- to provide a commentary track? Surely this story deserved more attention than just to be another DVD from the Warner Bros. Home Video mill.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital
aspect ratio(s):
Letterboxed and pan & scan versions
special features: Alternate languages, scene selections.
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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