Entertainment Magazine

Ghosts of Mississippi

Posted on the 01 August 2014 by Christopher Saunders
Ghosts of MississippiRob Reiner's Ghosts of Mississippi (1996) probes a sensational real-life murder case with the wit and insight of an NBC movie-of-the-week. Stanley Kramer would beam pridefully at its tone-deaf self-importance.
Jackson, Mississippi's Assistant DA Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin) meets Myrlie Evers (Whoopi Goldberg), widow of slain Civil Rights Leader Medgar Evers (James Pickens Jr.). Though decades have passed since her husband's 1963 murder, Myrlie's determined to reopen the case. Two all-white juries cleared Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods), despite material evidence and Beckwith's own boasting. DeLaughter faces a daunting task: witnesses are dead or scattered, evidence destroyed, the public hostile. Yet DeLaughter won't rest until he brings Beckwith to justice.
White guilt dramas proliferated in the '90s, less about racism's impact than how bad liberals feel about it. Ghosts of Mississippi boasts the endorsement of Medgar Evers' family (several making cameos) yet reduces Evers to a barely-glimpsed symbol. How can we like Evers when we've only met him vomiting blood? And the angelic Myrlie is less justice-seeker than moral compass, spurring DeLaughter on his righteous quest. Unlike our Caucasian heroes, Ghosts's black characters earn pity rather than respect.
Ghosts tries for a nuanced picture of modern Mississippi, still wrestling with its Jim Crow past. But "nuance" means stratifying whites between frightful bigots and do-gooding scalawags. DeLaughter nobly endures family turmoil, racist slurs and an indifferent boss (Craig T. Nelson). He even trades his bitchy wife (Virginia Madsen) in for a new model (Susanna Thompson), who's not only nicer but more progressive! DeLaughter's so blandly wholesome that we nearly side with the bigots. Beckwith's a repulsive monster, but at least he has a personality.
Reiner and writer Lewis Colick construct Ghosts with deadly predictability. Never mind the blunt speeches: DeLaughter explaining racism to his children is no worse than Gregory Peck's antisemitism lecture in Gentleman's Agreement. Other scenes play like a checklist: rednecks menacing DeLaughter's kids? Our hero considers quitting? Impassioned courtroom summations? These seem especially close to Oliver Stone's JFK, though their stink emanates from fifty years of message movies.
Alec Baldwin fumbles his Southern accent but retains bland likeability. Whoopi Goldberg gives a graceful, dignified turn that almost redeems a poorly-conceived character. James Woods relishes his irredeemable bigot, playing his trademark snide nastiness to the hilt. Ghosts boasts an impressive character ensemble: William H. Macy as DeLaughter's assistant; Diane Ladd as his bigoted mother-in-law; Brock Peters as Myrlie's second husband; television stalwarts Terry O'Quinn, Bill Smitrovich and Jerry Hardin in bit parts.
Ghosts of Mississippi fumbles a fascinating topic. Through its modern-day setting, it can only evoke the Civil Rights Movement secondhand. Eschewing the immediacy of Evers' life and struggles, Ghost provides only safe, pedestrian drama.

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