The heroism of the late civil-rights leader Medgar Evers is unquestioned. His murder was an American tragedy. That it took three decades to convict the killer is something of a national disgrace. “America Undercover’s” bumpy exploration of the man and his death wins points for keeping Evers’ story alive but falls victim to its own tabloid tendencies.
Conceptually, this is what “Southern Justice” does right: It integrates and intertwines the lives of Medgar Evers and his killer, Byron de la Beckwith, to paint a vivid portrait of that other country within the nation’s borders called Mississippi in the ’50s and early ’60s.
It’s a chilling canvas, a landscape tainted by hate and unchanged by emancipation, a place where the Klan was king and no white man had ever been convicted of killing a black. Remarkably, the more the rest of America chided Mississippi for its racism, the more the state’s elected officials — men like Ross Barnett — clung to its roots.
It was in this world that Evers and de la Beckwith grew up, one willing to die for equality, the other willing to kill to prevent it. Unfortunately, after invoking the magnificent black-and-white footage of cotton fields, riverboats, Klan rallies and other images that give breath to this environment, “Southern Justice” begins committing its own injustices.
Episodes are offered in reenactments that are more fitting of “A Current Affair”; they exploit in the name of drama as much as they explain in the search for truth.
Worse, producer/director/writer Christopher Olgiati constantly gets in his own way with self-conscious camera shots — cars driving, bridges reflecting moonlight — that divert attention from the narration. This is Errol Morris territory; less skilled documentarians need to tread this ground carefully.
The most riveting character on display is de la Beckwith, the unreconstructable racist finally brought to justice this past January after two previous trials had ended in hung juries. He’s presented here in snips from a 1991 BBC interview that are priceless; you can’t turn away from him and his zaniness. This is a man who can look directly into a camera and, unblinkingly say, “No one’s had any trouble with Martin Luther King since they put him in a coffin.”
Far less interesting is Evers’ widow, Myrlie. Her pursuit of justice in the death of her husband has been nothing short of epic, but here she comes across with all the conviction, spontaneity and passion of someone who’s told her story once too often. Which is too bad. Both she and Medgar Evers deserve better.