The story of Ghosts of Mississippi and the making of the movie have some interesting parallels. In the story, Bobby DeLaughter, a white lawyer goes after Byron De La Beckwith, the white killer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, some 25 years after the murder. Rob Reiner, a white director, goes after the same man. Some question is raised as to whether DeLaughter, a white man, can possibly be the right man for the job. Reiner appears to have foreseen the same criticism about the making of this movie. When the lawyer convinces Myrlie Evers, Medgar’s wife, that a white man can be determined enough, passionate enough, and able, Reiner answers his doubters, too. A noteworthy scene shows DeLaughter questioning his own motives. Can he really fight for racial harmony when he himself has not bridged the gap of interracial friendship? The answer he is given is: “It’s a step. That’s all we can do.” Again, on the other side of the camera, Reiner has silenced any detractors who may mistake him for the great white savior of the black race. He has no such delusions; he is taking a step.
It is worth pointing out that another step Reiner took was to hire a black man to narrate the theatrical trailer. It was pleasantly jarring to hear a voice other that the generic, ponderous white male which seems to do the voice-over on every movie trailer we see.
Ghosts of Mississippi the movie, however, does not fly as high as its idealism. DeLaughter’s first wife is a two-dimensional southern Belle. She simply cannot see why DeLaughter would waste his time prosecuting a great Mississippian like De La Beckwith. He has matured, she hasn’t (her name is Dixie, after all). His new wife is presented more favorably, but no more three-dimensionally. Racist: bad, integrationist: good. There were tensionless threats on DeLaughter’s house, his family, and his life from raving southern bigots. Alec Baldwin, playing DeLaughter, never let the threats carry from scene to scene, so the threats ended up as merely a diversion. The courtroom scene was played with none of the imagination, excitement, or tension Reiner generated in A Few Good Men.
There were bright moments in the film, like James Woods’ portrayal of the slimy, aging De La Beckwith. (Check out his portrayal of other seedy historical figures in Citizen Cohn and Nixon.) Also, several interesting questions were raised, if not given their due weight, such as the ethics and the value to society of trying a case 25 years after the crime. But the slick, shallow presentation leaves the movie feeling uneven and only vaguely satisfying.