Ghosts of Mississippi is a depressingly dull, ploddingly worthy account of a real-life drama. It tells the story of a murder trial that was staged three times over a period of thirty years.
Beckwith (James Woods), a known white supremacist, is arrested for the murder of black, civil rights activist Medgar Evers. In a largely racist milieu, only the idealistic lawyer Bobby (Alec Baldwin) and Medgar's plucky widow, Myrlie (Whoopi Goldberg), seem willing to fight the good fight, and help lay to rest the ghosts of the South's past.
Rob Reiner's film has one eye on successful social-issue films of recent years (such as Mississippi Burning, 1988) and another on the screen adaptations of John Grisham's courtroom dramas. Yet, overwhelmed by the gravity of its subject, it refuses almost every opportunity for spectacle, humour, intrigue or complexity.
For starters, it is not a mystery: the first scene shows us that Beckwith killed Evers. Given this, all suspense rests with the trial jury and its verdict – but the jury remains a faceless bunch of ciphers.
Worst of all, Reiner and screenwriter Lewis Colick (Unlawful Entry, 1992) allow not a single trace of ambiguity to creep into the portrayal of Beckwith; we are back in Schindler's List (1993) territory, with its rigid categories of absolute Good and Evil.
Reiner claims not to have fiddled much with the facts of this story. Yet, even within this framework of basic truthfulness, everything seems to have been bent to serve simplistic moral dichotomies. A subplot is indicative: in a few fleeting scenes, Bobby gets to swap a whining wife with racist sympathies (Virginia Madsen) for a nice, supportive, pretty liberal (Susanna Thompson).
I am a fan of James Woods from way back, but his turn as Beckwith is the least admirable performance of his career. Unlike, say, Gene Hackman, Woods does not try to understand or even slightly humanise the monster he is playing. He is like a ham actor in an agitprop play of the '70s, wearing a grotesque mask and producing pantomime gestures.
There is only imaginable reason why this performance garnered an Oscar nomination. Woods' distanced mannerisms flatter viewers, allowing them to gloat with knowing superiority over the despised character of Beckwith, and to rehearse once again in their minds the pat moral lesson of this poor film: that racists are very bad people.
© Adrian Martin May 1997