Ghosts of Mississippi |
directed by Rob Reiner
(Sony Pictures, 1996)
Medgar Evers was willing to die for what he believed in. Byron De La Beckwith was only too willing to oblige him.
Yet it took more than 30 years to bring Beckwith to justice for gunning down Evers in front of Evers' home in June 1963. Until you see Ghosts of Mississippi, it's hard to understand why.
Evers was a real-life hero to just about anyone who believed people shouldn't be judged by the color of their skin. The first African American to attempt to enroll in the University of Mississippi (yes, southern schools once had all-white football teams), Evers went on to fight for public school integration, voters' rights, open housing, open lunch counters -- the works.
Beckwith was a hero, too -- mostly to people whose initials were KKK.
Bringing their story to the big screen was no easy task. Fortunately, it fell to one of Hollywood's best, Rob Reiner.
Reiner, who has distinguished himself on a wide array of films -- Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and This Is Spinal Tap, to name a few -- is at the top of his form with Ghosts of Mississippi. This film is in many ways Reiner's most difficult, as it has to stand next to the historical record.
Fortunately, Reiner gets more than abundant help from an unusual cast that includes Whoopi Goldberg as Evers' widow, Myrlie, and Alec Baldwin as Bobby DeLaughter, the assistant district attorney who's reluctantly drawn into the case.
But most of all, Reiner gets the performance of a lifetime from James Woods as Beckwith, the Bible-toting assassin who all but brags about killing Evers and defies anyone to convict him.
Woods, who was the voice of the god of the underworld in Walt Disney's Hercules, shows us how he put the "H" in Hades with a performance that's at once rabid and restrained. Whether he's yawning in the courtroom while witnesses testify about how he confessed to killing Evers or explaining to DeLaughter how God meant for white people to rule over the "dusky races," Woods is maddeningly believable.
It's a performance that dominates the film -- even though most of the screen time goes to the unlikely team of Baldwin and Goldberg -- and it reaches peak perfection during a chance encounter between Beckwith and DeLaughter in the courthouse commode.
There Delaughter accuses Beckwith of gunning down Evers the way a hunter picks off a deer. Beckwith is outraged.
"A deer," he tells DeLaughter, "is one of God's noble creatures. I would never harm a deer."
It's a moment more chilling than anything Reiner turned up in either Misery or A Few Good Men.
The United States still has a long way to go to reach its stated goal of being a "color-blind society." But thanks to crusaders like Myrlie Evers and Bobby DeLaughter, we're one small victory closer.
And thanks to filmmakers like Reiner, we can all take part in the triumph.