Black & White, By the Numbers

Lots of hearts are in the right place in Rob Reiner's Ghosts of Mississippi, but none are beating. Scripted by Lewis Colick and based on the true story of how the killer of civil rights activist Medgar Evers was finally brought to justice, the film is a dull and platitudinous piece of Oscar bait.

Alec Baldwin plays Hinds County assistant district attorney Bobby DeLaughter, who is assigned to the case in 1989 after evidence comes to light of jury tampering in the two 1964 Evers murder trials -- both of which ended in hung juries. The role doesn't bring out the best in Baldwin -- rectitude never does. He shows us his concern for justice by inhaling deeply and not blinking a lot. The racist killer, Byron De La Beckwith, is played by James Woods mostly as an old man, and his latex jowls jiggle menacingly whenever he drawls. Meanwhile, Whoopi Goldberg as Evers's widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, is such a fount of dignity she makes Joan of Arc look like a slacker. Goldberg reads her lines as if she were etching stone with them.

We're put through the usual paces: Bobby's marriage, to the unfeeling daughter of a legendary racist judge, founders; he finds new love with a nurse who realizes his true worth; his son is beaten up by bullies; the threats pour in; his house is targeted by bombers; he flinches momentarily before renewing the fight. It is the peculiar achievement of Ghosts of Mississippi that it turns a great and inspiring true story into a John Grisham-y thing.

Why is Hollywood spending so much time and money these days whipping the South? Maybe it's because, in these post-cold war PC times, a good villain is hard to find. Murderous racist crackers have become the new commies.

-- Peter Rainer

Ghosts of Mississippi.
Directed by Rob Reiner. With Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, James Woods and Craig T. Nelson.

Rated PG-13.
123 minutes.


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