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White as 'Ghosts'

Alec Baldwin & Craig T. Nelson
Sydney Baldwin

Doing the Right Thing: Alec Baldwin (left) and Craig T. Nelson work to convict the killer of Medgar Evers in Rob Reiner's clueless "Ghosts of Mississippi."

Rob Reiner's civil rights drama
congratulates for a few good
white men for tackling racism

By Rob Nelson

AS TOLD in director Rob Reiner's Ghosts of Mississippi, 1993 was the year white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith finally received a life sentence for the 30-year-old murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Historical progress in the movies being even slower, 1996 will stand as the year Hollywood dared to engage the topic of racial injustice by crediting a few good white men with doing the right thing. Like A Time to Kill and The Chamber Reiner's film telescopes racism into the easily resolvable form of the courtroom drama, and puts a white knight in the center of the action: Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin), the Mississippi assistant DA who reopened the De La Beckwith case in 1989.

Set primarily during the four years between investigation and conviction, the story is of course true, but its point of view is subjective. Reiner limits Whoopi Goldberg's role as the widowed Myrlie Evers to a glorified cameo appearance, and reduces the rest of Evers family to mere extras. He also lets it be known from the outset that James Woods' De La Beckwith was indeed the assassin, so instead of providing a complicated narrative or realistically evoking the elusiveness of proof, he focuses on the DA's one-dimensionally fierce determination as he suffers the tarnishing of his reputation and the vandalizing of his car.

The point seems to be: What incredible courage this white man maintains in the face of racism. If Ghosts of Mississippi is more tedious and unconvincing than A Time to Kill, it's also slightly less offensive, owing mainly to the fact that it doesn't feel obliged to sell us on the heroism of a fresh young buck like Matthew McConaughey. Since the oldest Baldwin has struggled for almost a decade to have a worthwhile career, the movie doesn't need to emphasize the perseverance of his character; nor does it bother to invest much effort in restoring the star's marquee value. Basically, Baldwin has little to do but look principled--which also seems the only emotion allotted to Goldberg, stuck playing the most implausibly passive activist ever written for the Hollywood screen.

Conversely, the actor getting the bulk of Reiner's attention is Woods, who looks to be wearing two pounds of latex makeup as the 73-year-old De La Beckwith, and is therefore guaranteed to earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination. It's perhaps inevitable that a vicious monster would make the most striking impression in a Hollywood movie, but that doesn't let Reiner off the hook for perpetuating the white-knight genre's disproportionate emphasis on prejudice over payback. A formulaic happy ending isn't much reward for two hours of KKK-style venom.

Throughout, Reiner directs with the naiveté of someone who believes he's exposing racist violence for the very first time. Seriously, what vaguely unique perspective does he think he's offering here? Is he lamenting the stubbornness of old horrors to pass once and for all? Saluting the Goldberg character's steadfast faith that justice would prevail? Thanking the white knight for taking that one small step? Questionably "good" intentions aside, Reiner mainly seems after award nominations and ticket sales; that he's likely to succeed isn't as depressing as the thought of how many potentially galvanizing stories of race relations remain unfilmed.

Ghosts of Mississippi (G-13; 123 min.), directed by Rob Reiner, written by Lewis Colick, photographed by John Seale and starring Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg and James Woods.

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From the December 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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