Years ago I saw the VHS edition of Ghosts of Mississippi on a library shelf. I was in the mood for a good Peter Straub ghost story; so I checked it out. It was not a ghost story, but I was far from disappointed. No ghost story has ever been as good as this story of fact.
Most movies are not worth the time necessary to see them. Nevertheless I have seen hundreds of them, and Ghosts of Mississippi is one of my favorites. A recent viewing of the DVD motivated me to buy Of Long Memory, the book that the movie is based on. Almost finished with the book, I checked amazon, thinking of buying the movie for another viewing. Before buying it, I looked at the reviews. I think my reading of the book has given me something to contribute.
Ghosts of Mississippi is far better than the older, sensationalistic Mississippi Burning, though the latter got six Oscar nominations. Ghosts of Mississippi got only two: one for James Woods' portrayal of the villain Beckwith, and one for makeup (probably for the makeup on Woods).
How can the relatively humble and unacclaimed Ghosts of Mississippi possibly be one of my favorite movies? Am I crazy? Yes, of course I am, but besides that you might want to consider some other things: I have an affection for the acting of Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, and James Woods; I favor true crime and courtroom dramas; I have always been a firm advocate of racial equality and civil rights; I appreciate a movie with a hearty stand-up-and-cheer ending.
About the acting:
1. Of Long Memory says a good deal about that despicable rat Beckwith, and it is always reminiscent of the portrayal by Woods. That indicates Woods did a good job. And he did get an Oscar nomination.
2. The book doesn't say a whole lot about Myrlie Evers (the victim's wife), and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Whoopi's portrayal exhibited more energy than was in the real person. Even so, Whoopi was charismatic, lots of fun, and more than satisfactory.
3. Baldwin didn't look at all like the real prosecuting attorney, Bobby DeLaughter. But maybe his acting was accurate. The book says this: "The critics were discouraging [of DeLaughter's efforts to resurrect a twenty-five year old case]. But.... He would explain in his methodical, plodding way, why he felt impelled to go through with it." In other words, Oscars are often won not because of the acting but because of the role. Woods had good material to work with. Baldwin's character was methodical and plodding.
On unusual occasions, fact is more fictional than fiction. In Ghosts of Mississippi, you'll learn that the murder weapon has disappeared over the years. This was the scoped rifle that Beckwith used. It was an important piece of evidence. You'll also learn, if you pay close attention, that DeLaughter's wife, Dixie, was the daughter of a pro-segregationist judge. After starting on the Evers case, DeLaughter remembered that the judge had a souvenir gun from the the historical Civil Rights era. The gun turned out to be the rifle that was missing. (The serial number matched.) That's right. After a quarter of a century had passed, the young prosecuting attorney for the retrial had married the daughter of the judge who had the missing rifle. Fantastically unlikely, but absolutely true. (I think the movie has the rifle being found in an old chest. The book says it was in a closet.)
An interesting point for you Mississippi Burning fans: Two prominent events led to Beckwith's retrial. The immediate stimulus was a court order that released secret Mississippi-government documents suggesting jury tampering in the previous Beckwith trial. But before that, Mississippi Burning itself played a role.
Mississippi whites had bad things to say about Mississippi Burning, and so did Mississippi blacks. The latter felt that the movie didn't give enough credit to blacks for the liberal revolution that occurred in the state. I think the blacks were right, but what the movie did successfully was to remind white Mississippians of their uncivil past. Maybe only a few white Mississippians were ashamed of their past, but the movie encouraged at least some members of the new generation to show the world that Mississippi was, if not yet perfect, cleaner and more civilized. So when the secret files were released, there was enough support for a retrial of Beckwith.
Postscript (May 4, 2009): I got my DVD in the mail, and after watching this movie (again), I wanted to make a final comment, with respect to Mr. Baldwin's acting. I think the climax of the movie is his portrayal of Bobby DeLaughter's concluding argument. It was one of the more eloquent speeches I have ever seen or heard, in or out of a movie, real or fictional. It was so good it may me doubt that it was composed by the screenwriter. Maybe these were Bobby DeLaughter's actual words. I don't know. But it was a very fine speech, and you owe it to yourself to see the movie so you can see the speech.
Two post-movie notes:
1. 1999 - Bobby DeLaughter was appointed to a judgeship.
2. January 21, 2001 - Beckwith died during imprisonment.