When future generations turn to this era's movies for an account of the struggles for racial justice in America, they'll learn the surprising lesson that such battles were fought and won by square-jawed white guys. Compared with "Mississippi Burning" and "A Time to Kill," however, Rob Reiner's "Ghosts of Mississippi" is history a la Hollywood that doesn't manage to be particularly vivid or exciting in recounting the chivalry of its real-life white knight, a prosecutor attempting to bring a racist assassin to justice.

When future generations turn to this era’s movies for an account of the struggles for racial justice in America, they’ll learn the surprising lesson that such battles were fought and won by square-jawed white guys. Compared with “Mississippi Burning” and “A Time to Kill,” however, Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi” is history a la Hollywood that doesn’t manage to be particularly vivid or exciting in recounting the chivalry of its real-life white knight, a prosecutor attempting to bring a racist assassin to justice. Tepid and two-dimensional in the manner of many telepics, this “Ghost” bodes to haunt the vid shelves after a short theatrical life.

Tale opens with the June 1963 slaying of Jackson, Miss., NAACP leader Medgar Evers (James Pickens Jr.). Shown occurring the same night as a speech by President Kennedy calling for civil rights for American blacks, the murder is accomplished with chilly efficiency by Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods), an unapologetic hatemonger who later goes free, despite considerable evidence of his guilt, after two all-white juries end up deadlocked.

A quarter-century later, a movement to reopen the case spurs the involvement of Jackson Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin). This being the Hollywood version, DeLaughter (pronounced “Delawter”) is a morally far-seeing hero who takes up the cause out of the noblest of motives, ignoring the urgings of his benighted family and other whites while finding inspiration in the unwavering conviction of Evers’ widow, Myrlie (Whoopi Goldberg).

Despite obstacles that seem custom-made for a villain nicknamed “De-Lay,” the investigation eventually produces the desired result, a new trial in which the aged Beckwith is finally convicted. Along the way, much goes unexplained. For example, although DeLaughter greatly laments that no original trial transcript can be found, Myrlie takes a year before bothering to mention that she has one.

A far greater liability than such logical lapses is the cartoonishly simplistic characterizations on view here. Though Baldwin performs appealingly in the role, DeLaughter is dramatically handicapped in being allowed no flaws. He’s the perfect dad, valiant crusader, etc., just as Myrlie remains the plaster saint throughout, unable to crack a joke or utter a cross word. While full of self-congratulatory piety, this approach has plenty to offend viewers who wish for black characters that are more than convenient ciphers. In what’s almost a parody of a white screenwriter’s condescending fantasy, Medgar’s brother Charles (Bill Cobbs) is portrayed as a deejay who plays the kind of black music beloved by white liberals — Robert Johnson, etc. — at a time when he was, in fact, a prominent politician.

Like other Northerners’ cliched visions of the South, Lewis Colick’s screenplay has no use for African-Americans who aren’t martyrs or rhetorical pawns. There are no blacks in DeLaughter’s office, no black police officers. Not only is this socially inaccurate in the highest degree, but it has the cruel irony of denying the dramatic changes wrought on the South by Medgar Evers’ work. As in “A Time to Kill,” this South looks like nothing’s changed in 40 years. Lilly Kilvert’s dull production design follows the prevailing cliche that Southern homes and offices are full of dark wood and old furniture, with nary a fluorescent light in sight.

Pic’s one unarguable asset is Woods’ excellent work as Beckwith, although it could be said that the performance is so good that it effectively undercuts the surrounding movie. As the only really human character on display, the wily old racist, whose irrepressible sense of humor results in some choice courtroom wisecracks, ends up more sympathetic than Reiner and his collaborators might have wished.

Other tech credits are thoroughly pro

Ghosts of Mississippi

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release from Columbia Pictures of a Castle Rock Entertainment presentation of a Frederick Zollo production. Produced by Frederick Zollo, Nicholas Paleologos, Andrew Scheinman, Rob Reiner. Executive producers, Jeffrey Stott, Charles Newirth. Co-producer, Frank Capra III. Directed by Rob Reiner. Screenplay, Lewis Colick.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), John Seale; editor, Robert Leighton; music, Marc Shaiman; production design, Lilly Kilvert; art direction, Christopher Burian-Mohr; set design, Alan S. Kaye; set decoration, Karen A. O'Hara; costume design, Gloria Gresham; sound (Dolby), Robert Grieve; assistant director, Frank Capra III; casting, Jane Jenkins, Janet Hirshenson. Reviewed at the Sony Pictures screening room, N.Y., Dec. 10, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 130 MIN

With

Bobby DeLaughter - Alec Baldwin
Myrlie Evers - Whoopi Goldberg
Byron De La Beckwith - James Woods
Ed Peters - Craig T. Nelson
Peggy Lloyd - Susanna Thompson
Burt DeLaughter - Lucas Black
Charlie Crisco - William H. Macy
Benny Bennett - Lloyd "Benny" Bennett
Medgar Evers - James Pickens Jr.
Dixie DeLaughter - Virginia Madsen
Morris Dees - Wayne Rogers
Charlie Evers - Bill Cobbs
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