Rob Reiner’s steadfastly upright take on the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963 is a curious film. Like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning
, the movie deals with murder, America’s racial powder keg of the early Sixties, and the search for truth and justice amidst layers upon layers of Southern obfuscation. At the time of its release, in 1988, Mississippi Burning
was hamstrung by critics who pointed out that the film played fast and loose with recorded history; despite the factual errors, however, Parker’s film was a genuinely affecting tour de force. Reiner’s film, on the other hand, may be squeaky clean historically, but it lacks the underlying passion to take it into the realm of the inspired. All three main leads – Goldberg as Evers’ long-suffering wife Myrlie, Woods as the killer cracker Byron De La Beckwith, and Baldwin as assistant district attorney Bobby DeLaughter (the man who brings De La Beckwith to justice 30 years after the crime) – are excellent, particularly Woods (his interpretation of the aging Beckwith is riveting). But for all the good intentions, there’s still something missing. Much of the problem stems from Reiner’s backstory, of which there is little. For those who are unfamiliar with the place Evers holds in the American canon, the film offers only the ricketiest of insights. We’re told he was a great man in the civil rights movement, but beyond that, Reiner gives us little else. The character of Evers is onscreen only at the moment of death, and so we have to accept on faith not just the man himself, but the inner workings of his family, and also Mississippi’s 30-year love/hate relationship with him. When the film moves into the courtroom, with Baldwin as the courageous attorney, Ghosts of Mississippi
falls headlong into the kind of courtroom melodramatics that have become something of a cottage industry these days. The outcome of the trial is a matter of public record: That old scumbag Beckwith is going to get his, and justice will prevail. That’s a given, but instead of punching up the rest of the story to compensate for the known with the unknown, Reiner creates backhanded suspense with bits and pieces of grade-school philosophizing about the dual nature of the South and the popular urge to drag it kicking and screaming into the 20th century. It’s not enough, and sometimes, it’s too much. Ghosts of Mississippi
isn’t a bad film by any means; it’s just not a very good film.