January 3, 1997 in Seven

Too Much Hollywood In ‘Ghosts Of Mississippi’

Janet Maslin New York Times
 

“This story is true,” reads an opening title in “Ghosts of Mississippi,” Rob Reiner’s self-important new drama.

But true as it is, Reiner’s film feels like the Hollywood version. In describing how Byron De La Beckwith, the assassin who killed the civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was brought to justice 30 years after his crime, Reiner falls back on pat dialogue, courtroom grandstanding and the excessive nobility of a white crusader helping black victims.

This film runs so true to the Hollywood view of Southern white racism that its hero’s wife is the fading blond belle who won’t stay with her man when the going gets tough. It also includes the “To Kill a Mockingbird” moment when its hero educates his offspring, and his audience, about the harsh realities of Southern life.

“You know, sweetie, maybe ‘Dixie’ isn’t the right song,” he tells his little daughter, who is used to hearing it as a lullaby. “I’m not sure all ghosts like ‘Dixie.”’

The film, written by Lewis Colick, also has a great love of rhetorical questions. (“What kind of man shoots another man in the back in front of his family?” “Is it ever too late to do the right thing?” “Mrs. Evers, how did it feel when the verdict came in?”) But its most jaw-dropping line comes from Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers (Whoopi Goldberg). “You remind me of Medgar,” she tells Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin), the assistant district attorney who works doggedly at reopening the Evers murder case.

Evers was a consultant on this film, whose cast includes other members of the Evers family, and she may believe exactly that. But the movie’s stolid hero isn’t seen rivaling her husband’s accomplishments.

As played by Baldwin with more dutifulness than excitement, Bobby is a hunter who’s less interesting than his prey. Meanwhile, Goldberg is frozen into genteel rectitude by the burden of playing this admirable woman. James Woods’s performance as the hateful old reprobate de la Beckwith is the film’s chief sign of life.

“Ghosts of Mississippi” opens with a rousing, majestic montage depicting landmarks of the civil rights struggle in America. None of what follows matches the impact of this title sequence, although Reiner does his best to churn up righteous indignation.

The film’s high-voltage visual style finds characters often on the march as they deliver their lines. And it builds inexorably toward courtoom theatrics (as in Reiner’s “A Few Good Men”). But the story’s dramatic potential is limited by its suspense-free outcome. While there may be viewers who don’t initially know how de la Beckwith’s trial ended, there will be none who can’t guess.

“Ghosts of Mississippi” includes brief, sharply good supporting performances from William H. Macy and Bill Cobbs, which stand out from its otherwise measured acting. Along with Woods’s wily malevolence, these vivid minor characters help rescue “Ghosts of Mississippi” from the memory of other recent films.

In addition to recalling “A Time to Kill,” with its own white hero fighting racism on similar terrain, this film allows a case to be made on behalf of a reprehensible character “because if the system doesn’t work for Byron De La Beckwith, it doesn’t work for anyone.”

“The People vs. Larry Flynt” says the same thing with real conviction and says it infinitely better.

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Ghosts of Mississippi” Locations: Magic Lantern, Newport and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Rob Reiner, starring Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, James Woods, William H. Macy and Bill Cobbs Running time: 2 hours Rating: PG-13

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Ghosts of Mississippi:” Michael Rechtshaffen/The Hollywood Reporter: Documenting the events leading up to the white supremacist’s ultimate conviction, Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi” is a well-intentioned but dramatically unsatisfying. There is an intriguing story to be told here, but it isn’t the one Reiner and Lewis Colick have chosen to tell. Michael H. Price/Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Brimming with stars but thankfully lacking in show-off star-turn acting, “Ghosts of Mississippi” plants Whoopi Goldberg solidly back in the arena of serious drama after too many years of light-comedy typecasting.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Ghosts of Mississippi” Locations: Magic Lantern, Newport and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Rob Reiner, starring Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, James Woods, William H. Macy and Bill Cobbs Running time: 2 hours Rating: PG-13

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Ghosts of Mississippi:” Michael Rechtshaffen/The Hollywood Reporter: Documenting the events leading up to the white supremacist’s ultimate conviction, Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi” is a well-intentioned but dramatically unsatisfying. There is an intriguing story to be told here, but it isn’t the one Reiner and Lewis Colick have chosen to tell. Michael H. Price/Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Brimming with stars but thankfully lacking in show-off star-turn acting, “Ghosts of Mississippi” plants Whoopi Goldberg solidly back in the arena of serious drama after too many years of light-comedy typecasting.


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