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‘Ghosts of Mississippi’ – The Last Time Director Rob Reiner Mattered

The well-intentioned drama fumbles by missing the story's bigger picture

In 1996, when I was a college freshman, my campus was visited by Yolanda King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ms. King was there to offer her perspective on post-L.A. riot America, contemporary problems with battling racism and sharing her father’s optimism on humanity. She was an elegant speaker who seemed to possess an inner glow.

At the end of her moving dialog with us, she added, “Oh, and please see ‘Ghosts of Mississippi,’ I’m in it and it’s a very good movie.” It was an odd, last minute plug and the only time she brought it up.

Ms. King has a small supporting role in the film, though her appearance in it is significant; her familial connection brings heft to the film’s depiction of systemic racism and efforts to change the mindset of those whose opinions on race are ingrained in bigoted tradition.

Ghosts of Mississippi - Trailer #2

The opening credits of Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi” is a visual compilation of the Civil Rights era. This searing intro dissolves into a depiction of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers being assassinated in his driveway, right in front of his family, while the assassin, Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods) flees in the distance.

The sight of Evers dying in front of his traumatized family is horrifying, among the most powerful scenes Reiner has ever directed. There’s a brief scene of a trial, in which Evers’ widow, Myrle Evers (Whoopi Goldberg) witnesses the handshake of the man on trial for killing her husband shaking the hand of a prominent politician in broad daylight.

Then the film cuts to modern day of 1990 and, the further away we get from Medgar Evers, the further the film gets from being how good it was at the start.

We meet Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin), the attorney who decides to take on Evers’ case and prosecute the now old but still dangerous Beckwith.

The nagging questions mount:

  • Why the focus on Myrle Evers’ lawyer and not her?
  • Why the cutesy subplot of DeLaughter’s romance with his son’s doctor?
  • Why does Reiner dilute the tale of Medgar and Myrle Evers by handing the focus over to DeLaughter?

Bobby DeLaughter was, without question, an important figure in Evers’ story but not the center. “Ghosts of Mississippi” doesn’t seem to realize that.

Baldwin is good here, but he’s also too heavy for a role that requires an actor with a lighter touch. Take the scenes of him singing to his daughter at bedtime – maybe Richard Dreyfuss could have made that work but seeing Baldwin do it is like watching Al Pacino playing Candyland.

Co-star William H. Macy, playing one of DeLaughter’s right hand men, has less movie star baggage and offers a down to earth quality that would have made him better suited him for Baldwin’s role.

FAST FACT: “Ghosts of Mississippi” snagged Woods a Best Supporting Actor nomination but couldn’t draw a crowd, earning just $13 million at the U.S. box office.

Goldberg is luminous, and the film keeps cutting away from her, which is a big problem. I’m not being politically correct here – the contrast of Myrle’s too-little-seen life, which is about long suffering patience, with DeLaughter sharing office banter and bedtime conversations (there’s lots of those in this movie) is evidence of a tough story getting the Hallmark treatment.

To think of how harrowing this could have been if the contrast had been the day-to-day lives of Evers and Beckwith, the two most interesting characters here. Either way, making this mostly about the lawyer in the middle of them is a nearly fatal flaw.

Woods’ riveting, disturbing scenes as a vile, elderly white supremacist are broken up by Reiner’s piling on the forced comic relief and TV-movie-worthy moments.

Add this to the good intentions pile of late 20th century films trying to tell stories of either Civil Rights or Apartheid or of racism in general, told from a Caucasian vantage point that is misguided, if not condescending.

Reiner’s film is in the company of “Cry Freedom” (1987), “Mississippi Burning” (1988), “Heart of Dixie” (1989), “A Dry White Season” (1989), “Love Field” (1991) and this year’s “Son of the South” (to name just a few).

This was the last major motion picture by Reiner that mattered. After one of the most enviable streaks of any filmmaker of the late 20th century (his ’84-’92 “This is Spinal Tap,” “The Sure Thing,” “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally…,” “Misery” and “A Few Good Men”), he flopped with “North,” bounced back with “The American President” and this.

The American President Official Trailer #1 - Martin Sheen Movie (1995) HD

Then, he made one bad film after another. There are worse films than “Alex & Emma,” “The Story of Us,” “And So it Goes” and “Rumor Has It…,” but it’s hard to think of any off the top of my head. Recently, Reiner has had one genuine hit, “The Bucket List” (2007) and one sleeper worth checking out, the sweet, charming “Flipped” (2010).

Like Ron Howard, another TV vet, Reiner doesn’t always go far enough when the subject is dark or doesn’t trust that his audience will go with him. He didn’t have that problem earlier in his career but with “Ghosts of Mississippi” and onward, this quality persists. I like Reiner a lot, particularly his earlier films and hope he’s able to make a film that matches the strength of “Stand By Me” and “Misery,” his best works.

Marc Shaiman’s gooey, soft-shoe score undermines how beautiful John Seale’s cinematography is. There’s also Margo Martindale, playing DeLaughter’s legal secretary: her insufferable, sitcom-ready zingers are especially hard to take.

James Woods for "Ghosts Of Mississippi" 1996 - Bobbie Wygant Archive

The most blame should go to Lewis Codlick’s screenplay, which too often shies away from the harder moments and settles for audience coddling. There is a real attempt here to portray Southerners angry at Evers’s efforts towards integration, but this results in too many cliched white side villains (played by everyone from Diane Ladd to Virginia Madsen) who float in and out of focus.

“Ghosts of Mississippi” touches greatness, then goes soft, though it does have real fire in its final moments. There’s a great scene where DeLaughter enters a restroom, which just-barely still has “WHITE MEN ONLY” inscribed on the door. He briefly encounters the vile Beckwith, who, unsurprisingly, behaves like a monster.

Then there’s DeLaughter’s final closing statement, which reminds us, “there is no statute of limitation for murder.” Baldwin may have been miscast overall, but he does a fine, moving job with his closing speech.

He says, “I’m asking you twelve ladies and gentlemen to act boldly, to hold this defendant accountable and find him guilty…simply because it is right, it is just and, Lord knows, it is time.” Bravo. It’s a great note to conclude on and a worthy callback to the power of the film’s prolog.

If only the film’s mid-section were as good.

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