trousat least a judgeship. But then the dusty past intrudes. Under pressure from black leaders with enough clout now to affect elections, District Attorney Ed Peters into whether there might be grounds to reopen the Evers case. “This is ridiculous,” responds DeLaughter, who faces a large enough load of current crimes without also becoming a forensic historian. What point is there in reopening a case already tried, twice, three decades ago, especially if critical evidence has disappeared and crucial witnesses have died? Demographics would dictate to Columbia Pictures that the question might also bother movie audiences. Most Americans alive today have no memory of 1963, and the average moviegoer is even younger than the average American. The martyrs of the civil rights movement might seem to many to be another tedious totem of the Boomer generation, like the Beatles or Mickey Mantle. When DeLaughter sits down to explain to his confused and threatened children, in very simple terms, just what their daddy is doing, it is also Reiner explaining to the audience, in very simple terms, just what the film is doing and why a viewer should care. Medgar Evers, whose dying words were “Turn me loose,” becomes a movie ghost who must be put to rest. As he, reluctantly, begins to compile a fresh file on an ancient violation, DeLaughter is horrified by the impudence of the slaying. “What kind of man shoots another man in the back in front of his family?” he asks, increasingly aware that that other man is, but for the tint of his skin, his own Doppelganger. The 37-yearold DeLaughter, a devoted father of three, finds uncanny parallels between himself and Evers, who was 37 and a devoted father of three when slain. When Evers’ widow tells DeLaughter, “You remind me of Medgar,” it is a culminating confirmation of the prosecutor’s own intuition and of the movie’s righteous denial that race matters. Prosecuting the insolent old racist who killed Medgar Evers and, at 73, still boasts that, “Killing that nigger gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children,” becomes such a compelling personal mission that DeLaughter is willing to jeopardize his career, sacrifice his marriage and risk his life. Attacked by vandals, repudiated by his wife and parents and undercut by his own boss, Baldwin’s assistant D.A. joins Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison and several of John Grisham’s avenging angels as avatars of the crusading Southern lawyer. Maryanne Vollers’ 1994 book; Ghosts of Mississippi \(from which Lewis Colick The Trials of Byron De La Beckwith and the Haunting of the New South. Reiner’s movie is an exercise in exorcism, in purging the New South of specters from the Old. By assuming the cause, and in effect the identity, of Medgar Evers, DeLaughter journeys from the Old South of Jim Crow BY ASSUMING THE CAUSE, AND IN EFFECT THE IDENTITY, OF MEDGAR EVERS, DELAUGHTER JOURNEYS FROM THE OLD SOUTH OF JIM CROW AND ROSS BARNETT TO A SOCIETY THAT CHERISHES TOLERANCE, REASON AND COMPASSION. and Ross Barnett to a society that cherishes tolerance, reason and compassion. The transition is nowhere more dramatic than in the lawyer’s two marriages. His first wife, portentously named Dixie \(Virginia late daddy was the most racist of Mississippi magistrates. To her mind, it was bad enough when her husband went to work for a Jew and when he sacrificed lofty fees and social standing to work for the county. But when he takes up the Evers cause, she abruptly walks out on him andamplifying her contumelytheir children. By contrast, working woman, a registered nurse whom Bobby loves because she admires his campaign. DeLaughter’s own mother concedes contempt for Evers: “He was trying to destroy our way of life, and he succeeded too well.” But Peggy, who encourages her husband to pursue true justice, is an incarnation of the new way of life in Mississippi, a rejuvenated state that neither Phil Ochs nor audiences would expel from the Union. “You ain’t never gonna get twelve people to convict me of killing a nigger in Mississippi,” gloats Beckwith \(played with sa DeLaughter wins his case the ghosts of Old Dixie are gone. When daughter Claire is convinced that a ghost prowls her bedroom, DeLaughter attempts to dispel the phantom by singing “Dixie” to his little girl. Yet he succeeds in allaying her fears only by changing the tune to “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” In the triumphalist New South that Reiner’s film celebrates, they ain’t whistlingor staying married toDixie anymore. Alan Parker \(who, with Evita, recently justly, attacked, for distorting the Freedom Summer of 1964. His 1988 Mississippi Burning turns the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner into a story of FBI vigilance and virtue, when in fact the Hoover Bureau was actively undermining the fight for racial equality. Ghosts of Mississippi might be faulted for a similar blancocentrism, for displacing the struggle by African Americans for social justice onto a few white champions. It also burnishes the FBI, suggesting that the Beckwith case is finally cracked by means of a new witness, a Klansman named Delmar Dennis so disgusted by the Chaney/Goodman/Schwerner murders that he defected to the G-men. As Myrlie Evers, Whoopi Goldberg is a figure of impressive dignity, intelligence and strength, but she is off in Oregon for most of the film, available only by telephone for Bobby DeLaughter’s weekly progress reports. All the villains in Ghosts of Mississippi are bigoted whites, but so are its heroes. Though Myrlie provides the initial impetus and the continuing goad, putting to rest the ghost of Medgar Evers is a white man’s burden, one that DeLaughter carries off commendably. Who is Evers to him and he to Evers? Everything. The great white hope of the Hinds County Courthouse finds fraternity with a dead black man. Redneck Mississippi finds redemption in the final trial of Byron de la Beckwith. And audiences too young to remember 1963 and too white to understand learn to do both. Steven G. Kellman is the Ashbel Smith Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. JANUARY 17, 1997 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29
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