Ghosts of Mississippi

I’d like to have lunch with James Woods. Anyone who can take reprehensibility to the limit as he does here, and in the otherwise unremarkable Citizen Cohn, has got to be interesting. The man is a master at playing people you want to kick the crap out of.

In Ghosts of Mississippi, Woods plays Byron De La Beckwith, the infamous murderer of civil-rights leader Medgar Evers. Unconvicted for 30 years, he comes to trial an unrepentant old monster. While compelling in a basic fashion, the character is one-sided, as is everyone in this tepid screenplay. Alec Baldwin plays the devoted father and sacrificing lawyer who turns his back on racist in-laws to take the case. Why he would have married a bigot in the first place is not examined. Whoopi Goldberg is the dignified widow. Craig T. Nelson is the combative boss who finally comes around. No stereotype is left unturned, and that’s a shame, because these events are real.

Evers was murdered, and it did take 30 years to bring his killer to justice. That a guilty verdict was possible in the 1990s but not in the 1960s speaks volumes about the success of the civil rights movement itself–as a society, we have changed. That is a message of great hope.

While Ghosts isn’t a bad renter, it would be gratifying to see it redone someday by a director less interested in the bottom line, and more interested in history.

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