The fierce reality of the opening newsclips dwarfs the Hollywood courtroom drama that follows.
"Ghosts of Mississippi" is the story of a Southern state facing up to its past. In June of 1963, Medgar Evers was shot to death in the driveway of his home. Thirty years later, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the crime.
If the movie seems curiously flat at times, it is probably because the story of separate but glaringly unequal justice systems for whites and blacks has been told in a thousand important ways since the early 60s, when the point was driven into the American consciousness. Live television brought brutal truth.
In a performance so oily that slime fairly oozes from his pores, James Woods makes it abundantly clear that De La Beckwith's trials were travesties. With Myrlie Evers (Whoopi Goldberg) on the stand, former Governor Ross Barnett strolls across the courtroom to the defense table in a silent gesture of support for the defendant. It is a message to the jury, a conspiratorial wink, a wordless collusion that says, "We all know how this works around here."
White juries had never convicted a white man for a crime against a black man, and in 1963, they were not about to start. Overwhelming evidence of guilt resulted in two hung juries and a 30-year hiatus during which the bullet, gun, and transcripts disappeared, while the executioner remained free. This ugly reality, mirrored in countless other cases, became the bedrock for change in the South.
In a new culture that evolved in large part because of the work of Medgar Evers and others who worked in the front line, prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin) finally secures the conviction of the man who once said proudly, "You ain't never gonna get twelve people to convict me of killing a nigger in the state of Mississippi." He was right for a long time.
Whoopi Golberg portrays Myrlie Evers as a woman of great dignity and forbearance. Alec Baldwin is good as DeLaughter, the tenacious prosecutor. But these fine actors struggle with the difficulty of portraying characters who stepped from obscurity into history. Both are a little too close to sainthood, perilously close to cliche.
In dealing with a spectrum of supercharged sensibilities, Director Rob Reiner has simply not found a way to tell the true story of the execution of a black man by a Southern racist without succumbing to the lifelessness that covers historical figures when they are treated with reverence. The movie is solid, but not inspired.
The fierce reality of the opening newsclips dwarfs the Hollywood courtroom drama that follows. Only James Woods, being free to make the villain as loathesome as he wishes, gives us a taste of the outrage that has been the daily poison of Medgar Evers's family, friends, and supporters for three decades. At least, and at last, Byron De La Beckwith knows that the South will convict a white man for killing a black man.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 495
Studio : PG-13
Rating : Castle Rock/Sony
Running Time: 2h10m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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