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'Ghosts' of the '60s Civil Rights Struggles

December 18, 1996|BILL HIGGINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It doesn't matter whether the key incident occurred 33 years ago. If a movie centers on murder, race and the justice system, it's going to remind someone of the O. J. trial.

Such was the case Monday when Castle Rock's "Ghosts of Mississippi" had a benefit premiere at the Mann National. The evening, which included a post-screening dinner at the Century Plaza Hotel, raised more than $100,000 for the NAACP.

The film focuses on the 1994 retrial that finally convicted the man who assassinated civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963. At the time, the trial of his notorious killer, Byron De La Beckwith, resulted in two hung juries. It was more than a quarter of a century later that a Hinds County assistant district attorney, Bobby DeLaughter, reopened the case and won the conviction.

Director Rob Reiner said that for a long time he has wanted to do a film with a civil rights background. The news of the De La Beckwith retrial stirred his interest. "I thought it was an interesting way to examine my feelings about racism through the character of the district attorney."

Alec Baldwin, who plays DeLaughter, said the main thought he takes from the project "is how proud I am that Rob put this together. This is a tough one. This is hard to dramatize."

Baldwin mentioned how helpful it is that Reiner is one of Castle Rock's co-founders. "He can make whatever the hell he wants. He can choose to take people on a little civics lesson here in 1996."

Reiner's friend Billy Crystal called the film "a powerful story." In his view, black people and white people seem more at odds in the last couple of years, "thanks to Mr. Cochran," and it's important "that a white man make this movie and do it without Hollywood-ing it up. Just tell the truth and show what a great injustice it was."

Bonnie Raitt said she was "glad to see anything that brings attention to the civil rights movement." And she saw a connection between justice not being served in the past and present events. "You can get mad all you want about O.J., but, in the karma of events, how do you know that down the line these things aren't related?"

James Woods, who was frequently mentioned as an Oscar contender for his portrayal of De La Beckwith, gave credit to a '60s Deep South jury for at least being hung. "In Jackson, Miss., in 1964, five of those guys voted for conviction. Nobody voted for conviction in the O.J. trial. You'd have thought someone would have thought that evidence was good."

Among those who saw the film were Michael Douglas, James Caan, Carl Reiner, Teri Garr, John Burnham, David Colden, Carl Gottleib, screenwriter Lewis Colick, producer Fred Zollo, the NAACP's Ernestine Peters and Castle Rock's Alan Horn, Martin Shafer and Andy Scheinman. The honored guest was Evers' widow, Myrlie, who praised the film, found it deeply emotional and thought it was important because "it brings to a larger audience the awareness of how things were."

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