“This story is true.” This caption flashes in Ghosts of Mississippi’s preface. This possesses a blunt, hardline persistence behind it. Before this caption, director Rob Reiner reminisces on black culture of the 1960s in an attitude tinged with searing pain and surprising achievement. This does a good job in setting the mood for the film. Setting the mood is a field that Reiner seems to have intense expertise in, given the nostalgic narration of Stand by Me, the eerie location in Misery, and even the suggested pedophilia of North that affirms the uncleanliness of the rest of that piece-a-shit. But I digress.
In June of 1963, a Mississippian black civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, was gunned down outside of his home by irascible racist, Byron De La Beckwith. He was tried twice and found not guilty for the murder of Evers. This is the thematic lead-in for the film. The film presents to us the widow of Medgar Evers, Myrlie. She is indignant on the fact that the accused assassin of her husband is being allowed to roam free, permeating his white supremacy attitude everywhere. In the late 1980s, an assistant District Attorney by the name of Bobby DeLaughter decides to take on the case, despite the fact that most of the evidence has disappeared and the judge who got Beckwith off the hook is the father of his wife.
For a film with such a bulky historical theme and an intriguing historical event, one adjective I can surprisingly use to describe this film is: underwhelming. Part of the blame goes to screenwriter Lewis Colick. I’m not saying the screenplay is badly written. I am saying that the film does, occasionally, fall victim to some clunky script decisions. Colick barely gives Goldberg any screen time, even though she’s listed as one of the major stars of the film. There’s a revelation of Medgar’s brother that is supererogatory and clichéd. There’s a scene where the status of the case is presented via a voice over as time goes on that feels awkward and rushed. All of these choices seem to act as currents that sweep the film under itself.
However, the worst script choice involves the love subplot. Lemme explain. When Bobby’s wife, who is racist, finds out that Bobby has taken on the case, she leaves him and their three children. One day, when his oldest son gets into a fight with some kid because of Bobby’s beliefs and decisions, the son is taken to a hospital. Bobby meets a nurse, she compliments his actions, the camera focuses on his and her awestruck faces, foreshadowing music plays, and, sooner or later, the lovebug gnaws their necks, mauling the script in the process. It feels completely pointless, as if it’s part of a different movie. It completely ceases the initially compelling flow of the film. I guess the progression of a case involving racial tensions was just so dull that they needed a romance to invigorate it. Blow me.
Also, this film hits some resonating blows in the character development and acting section of the film. There are so many characters (a D.A. officer named Mr. Peters, Bobby’s wife, the mother of Bobby’s wife, Bobby’s father, Bobby’s children – two of which go way overboard in their Southern accents) that are not only given such slim development, but whose real-life counterparts portray them terribly. William H. Macy is present in this film, but it’s so embarrassing to seem him prowl through the movie in a superficial role. He had more dignity in Marmaduke. Even the man who portrays Medgar Evers hams up his death scene, painfully.
Hell, even Alec Baldwin is flawed. Now, I do believe he gave a good performance as Bobby DeLaughter. In everything I’ve seen from him, he is always oozingly cool and suave. He brings those admirable qualities to this film, too. He, convincingly, dives into the complexities, moral dilemmas, and wild feelings of Bobby. It’s spellbinding, really. However, I felt that he employed one of the most pathetic Southern accents I’ve ever seen in film. It alternately comes and leaves him. Regardless, he was good.
As was James Woods as Byron De La Beckwith, whom I was annoyed with initially with that shrill, quasi-black voice, but manages to encompass evil with his squinched lips and glaring eyes. He’s a chilling presence, despite his lackluster character development. He’s pretty much just a sneering criminal and one confrontation between him and Bobby during the final court case, in my mind, boiled down to having all the cinematic importance and craft of a bragging third grader. Whoopi Goldberg was practically a shoe-in for the role of Evers’ widow. And despite her lack of screen time, a ham-handed speech at the film’s coda, and the fact that she never ages over the course of almost thirty years (must be some really good skin cream), she brings an intense courage and boldness to her performance. Her emotional testimony during the final court case is a moment that works for her because all her emotions amalgamate and culminate, without going over the top.
These three main performances, along with a couple of others, are good aspects of the film. As is the compelling flow I mentioned earlier. The structure of the film is beguiling and sustains your interest. While I knew where the train was going, I still enjoyed getting there and most, if not all, of what came with it.
I said the film was underwhelming. I never said it was a bad movie. While I’m not going to condemn the film for being predictable, seeing how most people, myself included, know the outcome, I am a little disappointed of how rudimentary the film is. However, I’m the kind of person who likes to take what they can get. Thankfully, the film gave me just enough.