(Air Date: Week Of 12/18/96)
The work of pioneering civil rights leader Medgar Evers has faded from popular memory. The Ghosts of Mississippi gets credit for trying to remedy that, but, alas, good intentions alone do not a good movie make.
The film opens in 1963 with Evers' assasination by white supremecist and all-around whacko, Byron De La Beckwith, played with scenery chewing relish by James Woods. We are never in doubt about who the murderer is, nor why he's still free after two mistrials. In a pointed scene, Myrlie Evers testifies before an all-white jury about finding her dying husband in a pool of blood. As she testifies, a former governor of Mississippi strolls in and shakes De La Beckwith's hand. Welcome to the Old South.
Fast forward to 1989 and Myrlie is petitioning for a new trial. Jackson's Distict Attorney is not exactly turning somersaults at the prospect of reopening this public relations nightmare. Still, one assistant DA, Bobby DeLaughter, steps forward to take on both the case and the Old Guard still populating New South. He's confronted with dead witnesses, vanished evidence and less than enthusiastic support on any front.
Meanwhile, Myrlie's struggle for justice, maintained for over a quarter of a century is glossed over with a throwaway reference to mysterious government files coming to light. Instead of following up on this tantalizing revelation, the film becomes the Bobby DeLaughter story. A mistake intensified by the fact that I never for one minute bought Alec Baldwin as Bobby. Imagine, if you will, Cary Grant as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and you begin to fathom the depths of this casting faux pas.
Whoopi Goldberg's wonderful performance as Myrlie, on the other hand, is all but reduced to a voice on the phone. The too few glimpses of her with her family point up how misguided it was to gut this part of the story. And Rob Reiner's direction has never been more insipid. Unbelievable coincidences and breathtaking plot twists, things that ought to by rights make the audience gasp, are rendered so bland that they don't just fall flat, they sink below sea level. Medgar and his family deserve better.Copyright 1997 Andrea Chase
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