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Haunting 'Ghosts'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 20, 1996

In "Ghosts of Mississippi," director Rob Reiner opens a painful chapter in the bitter Civil Rights era…all in the name of entertainment. This account of real-life black activist Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in 1963, contains the usual Hollywood caveat: Where the facts are dramatically inconvenient, they're dispensed with or streamlined. But as an amalgam of drama and history, Reiner and scriptwriter Lewis Colick strike a surprisingly satisfying compromise.

"Mississippi," starring Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg and James Woods, is a stirring courtroom drama spiced up with colorful Mississippi characters drawn from real life, including Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter (Baldwin), who takes on the case 25 years after the murder, and Byron De La Beckwith (Woods), Evers's confessed killer, who has waltzed free after two trials ended with hung juries.

When a local newspaper publishes allegations of jury tampering in the Evers trials in 1964, Hinds County prosecutor DeLaughter and his superior, Ed Peters (Craig T. Nelson), face enormous, polarized pressure from those who want Beckwith brought to justice and those who think the past should be left alone.

DeLaughter faces seemingly insurmountable difficulties. The murder weapon and the original trial transcript have disappeared. Witnesses are either dead or unwilling to re-testify. Evers's widow (Goldberg), who distrusts the prosecutor, is barely cooperative. And DeLaughter faces domestic dissension and divorce proceedings from his wife (Virginia Madsen), the daughter of a right-wing judge.

Outraged by the fact that Evers was killed in front of his wife and family, DeLaughter (who has children himself) decides to pursue the case to the bitter end. With the help of eccentric investigator Charlie Crisco (William H. Macy) and a liberal-minded cop (Lloyd Bennett), DeLaughter goes in search of truth, justice and the American way.

Reiner and screenwriter Colick (who scripted "Unlawful Entry" and "Judgment Night") hardly pull their punches. DeLaughter customarily hums "Dixie" to one of his children to scare her imagined bogeymen away. But after becoming obsessed with the Evers matter, he tells his kid the song is no longer appropriate to scare away ghosts in this particular state. And whether it happened or not, we could probably do without the scene in which an attractive doctor (Susanna Thompson), soon to be our hero's new love interest, tells DeLaughter, "I just want to tell you that what you're doing is very important."

But Reiner…who made "A Few Good Men," one of the best, formulaic courtroom movies in recent years…gives us powerful reason to watch. The finale, which mirrors the facts enough for us to enjoy the experience and not feel guilty, is an exciting one. And in Woods, the director has hired the villain of the year. With a southern drawl that sounds persuasively homegrown and a dry-ice stare that would intimidate a rattlesnake the defendant…now a nasty old man…creates moments of almost uncomfortable perfection. "I did not kill him," he says. "But he sure is dead."

GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI (PG-13) … Contains racial epithets and violence.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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