Reviewed by GREG KING
Stars:Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, James Woods, Craig T Nelson, William H Macy, Lucas Black, Jerry Levine, Margo Martindale, Terry O’Quinn, Bill Smitrovich, Lloyd “Benny” Bennett, Michael O’Keefe, Brock Peters, Wayne Rogers, Bill Cobbs, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Andy Romano
Running Time:130 minutes
Rob Reiner returns to the courtroom for the first time since A Few Good Men, but with a legal thriller of a different kind. Based on the true story of the fascinating trial of Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods), a bigoted and unrepentantly racist redneck and member of the Ku Klux Klan, who assassinated civil rights activist Medgar Evers way back in 1963, this powerful film explores the divisive, deeply emotive and complicated issue of race relations in America’s southern states. Although he was arrested and put on trial for the murder, Beckwith was eventually freed after two all-white juries failed to convict him. After his release from custody, Beckwith continued to play an active role in stirring up racial hatred and violence through his involvement in the Klan.
For nearly thirty years Evers’ widow Myrlie (Whoopi Goldberg) nursed her desire for vengeance and justice, until she found an unexpected ally in assistant D.A. Robert DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin). Despite her initial distrust of a white prosecutor, Myrlie eventually came to rely upon DeLaughter after he convinced her that he was willing to re-open the case and try for a conviction. Despite warnings he was opening a potentially volatile can of worms that could have deeper social implications, DeLaughter was driven by a firm conviction attitudes had changed in Mississippi, and that it is never too late to bring a killer to justice for his crime.
However, obvious problems arose when it was discovered that most of the original evidence, including a vital copy of the original trial transcript, were missing, and many of the original witnesses were either long dead or unwilling to change their testimony. Hints of official corruption and deliberate cover ups further muddied the waters of DeLaughter’s lengthy investigation. By pursuing such a potentially unpopular case that many people would prefer remain closed, DeLaughter isolated himself from much of the local white community, including his wife (Virginia Madsen), who eventually left him. However, DeLaughter also found that there was plenty of support from people within the community who recognised the long overdue need for change, and welcomed the trial as an overture to the process of atonement. DeLaughter eventually secured Beckwith’s conviction, enabling Myrlie Evers to finally exorcise her own demons of the past and put aside her grief and anger and get on with her life.
Writer Lewis Colick (Unlawful Entry, etc) has diligently and painstakingly researched the history of the Evers case and he presents the information in a logical and straight forward fashion, although many liberties have been taken for dramatic purposes. But rather than focus the film on Evers and her emotionally trying thirty year quest for justice, Reiner and Colick explore a softer and less controversial option by concentrating on the less fascinating character of DeLaughter, to the ultimate detriment of this potentially fascinating film. The film spends a lot of time on exploring how his obsessive involvement with Beckwith’s retrial eventually had a high personal cost. Bomb threats and intimidation from rednecks make this sometimes seem like something out of John Grisham’s A Time To Kill. Some plot elements seem unnecessarily melodramatic, making it hard to believe that this is actually a true story rather than yet another Grisham adaptation.
Reiner has assembled a wonderful cast to flesh out the characters, but it is Woods, in his Oscar nominated role, who dominates. Buried under layers of make-up that transforms him into a 70 year old man, Woods turns in a wonderful and subtly sinister performance as the unrepentant and arrogant Beckwith, who obviously treats the court proceedings with disdain and utter contempt. Baldwin carries much of the emotional intensity of the film on his shoulders and although he does a good job with a complex character, even he cannot make it clear why DeLaughter should be the central focus of Ghosts Of Mississippi. Goldberg is wonderful in a rare dramatic role as Myrlie Evers, and she brings a poignant and tragic dignity to her rich performance that captures the driving strength and unflagging courage of this woman who has continued to champion the advancement of her race and women in society. Some nice touches of humour are injected into the film through William H Macy’s laconic and droll performance as a detective and Margo Martindale, who plays DeLaughter’s acerbic secretary. In an unusual piece of casting, Evers’ three children play small roles in the film, while real life investigator Lloyd “Benny” Bennett plays himself.
Reiner’s direction is solid but workmanlike and he tends to present everything in clear shades of black and white, although one feels that the issues here were nowhere near as clear cut as the film would suggest. There are occasions when the film’s pace plods along and audiences become aware of its length. At times Ghosts Of Mississippi also seems to lack the power and the passion of other recent evocative dramas, like Mississippi Burning, etc, that have confronted the shameful history of racial hatred and violence of America’s south. Despite its obvious faults though, Ghosts Of Mississippi is still a fascinating and powerfully haunting tale that explores themes that are horribly relevant even today.