There are no moral ambiguities in Ghosts of Mississippi (1996; dir. Rob Reiner). Given that this film is about the 1994 trial of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of civil rights worker Medger Evers, perhaps there shouldn’t be. But their absence does indicate the level on which this film functions. It begins with a montage of shots alternating between brutal scenes of struggle from the civil rights movement and images of African American achievement. The montage is followed by a message stating that “This is a true story.” As with any film based on fact, what we really have here is a version, an interpretation, of the true story. But because the story is “true” and because the screenwriters thought it important to stick with the facts, basically, there are some scenes, some information, some moments that detract from the dramatic focus on de la Beckwith and the young Mississippi assistant district attorney Bobby DeLaughter who succeeds in putting him on trial and convicting him.
De la Beckwith as played by James Wood is cold, frightening, and crazy. There is no drama associated with him. He’s the evil racist perpetrator, and the film makes little effort to understand him or how he became what he became. He is what he is, and the film implies that in various ways he holds beliefs and values that much of the rest of the white South held in 1963 and continued to hold, perhaps, in 1994. The white racist South, and the oppressed African American South, is the film’s historical context.
Whoopi Goldberg as Myrlie Evers is the ever vigilant and long suffering widow who never gives up on her hope that one day her husband’s killer (who was freed after all-white juries in two 1964 trials could not reach a verdict) will be convicted. Goldberg can be a good actress, and she performs well in this film that makes few demands on her.
The dramatic center of the film is Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin). He embodies the moderate white Southerner of the 20th century who holds in contempt the racism of people such as De La Beckwith but who finds it easier not to stir up trouble and to live with the status quo. DeLaughter in the film struggles against the idea of opening a case that has been closed for twenty-five years. His guilty conscience gnaws at him. He reviews the evidence, talks to some witnesses, visits the home where Evers was killed, thinks about his three children (Evers had three children as well), and finds enough new information to reopen the case. As a result, his wife leaves him, he receives bomb threats, some of his former friends insult him, and the political career he hoped to have is ruined. The key moment in the film comes when leaders in the local black community accuse him and his boss Ed Peters (Ed Nelson) of being racists who want to prevent a new trial. Peters decides to assign the case to another lawyer, an African American woman. DeLaughter appeals for support to Myrlie Edwards, but she hangs up on him, only to appear in the court house a couple of days later with key evidence that ensures both that the trial can take place and that DeLaughter can stay on the case. He sacrifices a great deal personally in pursuing the case. His character is the most interesting aspect of the film—both as a white Southern moderate moved to act, and as a man compelled to sacrifice his marriage and his place in the legal and social community by his obsession with the case. But the film does not explore this potential beyond the issue of DeLaughter’s moral commitment.
This film succeeds as a dramatization of an important event in American civil rights history. It falls short as a film because of its overzealous earnestness, its lack of depth or nuance, its simplistic definition of the issues, the Hollywood characterizations, the stark binaries in its portrayal of the late-20th century South, the predictable ways in which the plot develops (more predictable than even a film based on fact should allow).
Ghosts of Mississippi ends with DeLaughter’s successful conviction of De La Beckwith, who died in jail in 2001. Outside the courthouse, a mixed crowd of blacks and whites celebrate—underlining the film’s assertion that many people in Mississippi disapproved of De La Beckwith and people like him. But the film doesn’t suggest that the victory led to improved race relations in Mississippi, though in some small sense it should and must have, though DeLaughter’s passion for prosecuting the case is evidence of that improvement.
Filmed in 1996, Ghosts of Mississippi doesn’t touch on DeLaughter’s later financial difficulties, his unsuccessful career in politics, or his bribery trial in 2009.