Ghosts of Mississippi - * *

Rob Reiner’s latest film takes the tragedy of the murder of Medgar Evers and turns it into a watered down Grishamesque southern lawyer story. In very quick opening scenes, we learn that the racist Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods) shoots civil rights leader Medgar Evers in the back. That’s about all we learn about those two central figures throughout the course of the movie. Instead, the action flashes forward to 1989, where after two mistrials and 25 years, the case lands in the lap of assistant DA Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin). Bobby is at first hesitant to tackle the old case, but gradually he turns around, acknowledges his own racism and that of those around him, builds a case and begins to prosecute with a vengeance. Those familiar with this type of movie can follow the plot with their eyes closed. There’s the bomb threat, the meaningful discussion with the children, the reluctant witness, the familial conflict…they’re all here. The fact that the events of this movie really happened make the movie’s faults all the more evident. Where there were real people, there are now cariactures; real events are now predictable stock situations. We never get to understand any of the characters, and the two most connected with the case, Byron De La Beckwith and Medgar Evers, remain undecoded ciphers. Alec Baldwin’s turn as the white southern lawyer reveals no new shadings to this commonplace character. He gets a bit of help from the supporting cast: William H. Macy and Craig T. Nelson are colorful as some of his co-workers. But Whoopi Goldberg as Medgar’s widow, Myrlie, comes off rather weakly, serving more as a plot device than a true character. There’s a good, insightful story to be told about the life and death of Medgar Evers. Ghosts of Mississippi isn’t it.

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