THREE STARS - Challenging
The ghosts of racial prejudice haunt the American soul. Though racism is not unique to us, our specific flavor is both unsettling and repulsive when it is depicted in such authentic form as in “The Ghosts of Mississippi.”
This true story recounts the wound in our collective soul when a white supremist, Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods) shoots Medgar Evers in the back on June 11, 1963. Tried for murder in two separate trials, his two hung juries of all white men supported the belief that “No white man will be convicted of killing a black man in the state of Mississippi.”
In the history of our civil rights movement, no day brings together the opposing forces like June 11, 1963. That morning was the confrontation between Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenback and Governor George Wallace at the University of Alabama. With ardent resolve, the commitment to equal opportunity was forced upon the state of Alabama as the first black students entered the university.
That same day, President Kennedy delivered a strongly worded appeal for equal rights as he said: “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves; yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet fully freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression, and this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all citizens are free.”
In a jarring cinematographic moment, the film shows President Kennedy saying these words on the television as Beckwith prepares to shoot Medgar Evers upon his midnight return to his family’s home. As the shots ring out from the scoped rifle and the bullet passes through his body and into the family’s home, the wound to the family and the nation has occurred.
The film moves 26 years later to 1989. Due to the persistent efforts of Evers’ widow, Myrlie (Whoopi Goldberg), the political pressure is put on the new district attorney to reopen the case and bring Beckwith to justice.
Although the evidence has been lost, the DA puts a capable young deputy, Bobby Delaughter (Alec Baldwin), on the case. Delaughter at first is uninterested. Events of a quarter century ago seem of little importance to his life. But then he experiences the stench of the wound.
As he relives the events of that night he asks himself the question, “What kind of man shoots another man in the back in front of his children?”
This question is the beginning of our healing. When we place our fellow human beings within the context of our own experiences of love of family, children and dreams, we remove the dehumanizing nature of racist distinctions. Every person, of every race, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, allowed to live their lives in peace. When the lives of some are devalued by the actions of others, then everyone everywhere is wounded.
We experience with Delaughter his struggles with the dynamics of the case and the building of trust with Evers’ widow. This is the second part of our healing: Trusting one another. In frustrating authenticity, the two worlds of Myrlie Evers and Bobby Delaughter begin to meet.
But the final healing comes from seeking and obtaining justice. As Delaughter brings the various evidence to bear, the arrogant supremacy attitudes of Beckwith become obvious. It is then that we recognize that the nature of his evil is to not only destroy another man and his family, but it is to do so with smug impunity that no one “can do anything about it!”
Such a claim is a cancer in the society in which we live. That people may be prejudiced or perpetrate evil is a sad fact of humanity, but to claim that no one can hold them accountable is a spiritual and social lie which must be challenged.
In the end, although Delaughter is able to bring Beckwith to justice, the film allows us to recognize that this is not in fact the final healing of racism’s pervasive wound.
In frustration, Delaughter laments to his wife that we talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk. “We don’t have any black friends, we don’t have any black people over to dinner, we don’t even go to church with any of them!”
The challenge of “Ghosts” is to each one of us: True justice will come from the loving actions that we take, not just the positions in which we believe. This kind of change calls for sacrifices from us all.