Though not related to Willie Morrisnever mind the fact that we both lived in Oxford, Miss., at the same time, both did graduate work at Oxford University, and both currently reside in Jackson, Miss.I am an admirer of his writing, particularly his essays. They are noteworthy for their seamless blend of reporting and erudition and are usually saturated withto my mind the quintessential Morris qualitya poignant, biting nostalgia that doesn’t descend into sentimentality. As the title of one of Morris’ collections makes clear, he is a writer concerned with “terrains of the heart.” In considering such territory, one is necessarily drawn toward reflections on home, family, history, and the love of one’s land and region, Morris’ thematic bread and butter.
How interesting, then, that in writing The Ghosts of Medgar Evers: A Tale of Race, Murder, Mississippi, and Hollywood, Morris should tackle Hollywood movie making, an enterprise that even by charitable standards may be characterized as a trade committed to the destructionor at least the trivializationof his favorite concerns. The book explores the making of Rob Reiner’s film Ghosts of Mississippiwhich portrays the retrial and ultimate conviction of Medgar Evers’ murderer, Byron De La Beckwith. Evers, a giant in the fight for civil rights, was shot in the back in the driveway of his home in Jackson; Beckwith was tried for the crime and acquitted. His freedom became an unbearable reminder of injustice, particularly because he was in the habit of mouthing racist sentiments on a regular basis. But some 30 years after the shooting, Evers’ widow Myrlie found someone to champion her causelawyer Bobby DeLaughter, also a native son of Jackson, who fought for and gained a retrial for Beckwith. In 1994, he and District Attorney Ed Peters tried and convicted Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers. Morris’ book, in examining how Hollywood treated this remarkable story, also amounts to a meditation on the juxtaposition of two places, Mississippi and Hollywood, and two radically incompatible ways of thinking about the world.
The Hollywood Way amounts to a view that places a premium on entertainment and commercial considerations at the expense of the past, tradition, and artistic accomplishment. The other way of thinking about the world is more respectful of the past and tradition, which is to say it is less hip but more humane. That may come across as an oversimplification, but Morris’ latest effort reveals that the distinction remains serviceableand, to my mind, doesn’t win the Hollywood Way much praise.
What makes Morris’ take so interesting is that his loyalty is divided throughout the book. He arrived at this uncomfortable position because he was to a large extent responsible for getting the movie made, and because, tooling around with its director, producer, writer, and stars during the course of filming, the gregarious Morris made friends quickly. The picture he attempts to paint of the people involved is an inspiring one: Producer Fred Zollo, director Rob Reiner, writer Lewis Colick, and actors Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Whoopi Goldberg, et al. wanted to make a movie that did justice to a landmark case in civil rights and fostered racial healing to boot.
I will not easily forget how eager and committed everyone was during the making of Ghosts. This feeling seemed to have gone beyond the call of Hollywood duty. For Rob Reiner, James Woods observed, the film was a “sacred mission. He maintained the tidal wave of passion that he incited every day.” I had watched the director during this project. I had seldom seen someone so invested in something.
I do not doubt that this was so, but, unfortunately, the movie is a dog, and in some respects it is maliciously dishonest. Morris sensed this problem and had quite a bit of trouble explaining why, given all the goodwill he experienced. But as an artist and an eloquent commentator on the complicated lives of individuals, he had the reasons for its failure right under his nose.
Much of the criticism of the movie has to do with the fact that it is not about Medgar Evers but is instead about the white Southern prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter. Whatever the merits of this positionthis subject has been given a thorough going-over elsewhereMorris rightly argues that such critiques are not about movies per se.
But Ghosts of Mississippi fails by its own standards. I was at the Mississippi premiere of the movie, sitting in the balcony while Morris sat in one of the front rows of the auditorium, in the VIP section. Here is Morris’ take on the audience’s reaction: “[G]radually the response became even more enthusiastic than in New York, with a number of standing ovations during the screening. There was jubilation when the final credits came.”
Here is mine: There was indeed jubilation when the final credits came, largely because people were damned glad the debacle was over. Though I lacked Morris’ prestige, I had a better perspective on the audience, because most of it sat in front of me. Throughout the film, people were falling asleep. Entire families were dutifully flogging themselves to remain in their seats. One black fellow sitting near me turned to his wife and said that Whoopi Goldbergwho portrayed Myrlie Evers in much the same fashion as that Star Wars robot C-3PO mimicked human beingswas unwatchablea judgment that, as Morris chronicles, was not far from Evers’ own.
And, yes, there were indeed standing ovations, but such applause was for the most part reserved for moments when people identified themselves onscreen. No doubt about it, the audience approved of its own performance mightily.
But if Ghosts of Mississippi lacks drama and artistry, The Ghosts of Medgar Evers does not. Reading Morris’ book, one is captivated by the vivid portraits he paints of Bobby DeLaughter and Medgar Evers and of the haunted Mississippi landscape he knows so well. One of the most delightful characteristics of Morris’ writingaside from his shimmering and supple proseis that it is suffused with Morris’ own delight in people and places and the idiosyncrasies that make them distinct. As usual, he zeroes in on significant details other writers might overlook, as when, for example, he tells of taking Reiner and his children on a tour of Mississippi only to discover that the Reiner children have no idea what a cemetery is.
On another trip through the Delta with the Hollywood crew, Morris tells of the “first white society woman from down the way ever sent to the Parchman Penal Farmfor murdering her consort with garden shears in the 1950s; she was once temporarily released to attend her daughter’s debutante party….It was a long remove from Spago on Sunset Boulevard…”
For Morris, as for all great storytellers, odd tics and eccentricities are sought out and amplified, not discarded in favor of pabulum. But in the movie itself, pabulum rules the day. Ironically, the problem has to do with the fact that the very decisions that were made in an effort to create an exciting filmdecisions that amounted to serious tampering with history and people’s livesrendered the film formulaic and tiresome. All of which reveals quite a bit about the grievousness of the Hollywood Way. Perhaps Morris is too good a friend to point this out directly, but his powers of observation are too trenchant for him to let the point slip by entirely.
For instance, if you watch the film you get the idea that Bobby DeLaughter is a white, largely secular, mildly liberal civil rights crusader of the Southern varietya person who very much resembles, excepting the Southern part, Alec Baldwin and Rob Reiner. Should you read The Ghosts of Medgar Evers, on the other hand, you will learn that Bobby DeLaughter
is a deeply religious man but does not advertise it. “I’ve never been much of a party person,” he once said to me. “I’ve voted for Republicans and Democrats alike….The one thing I’ve always been is a conservative….It was from the depths of my conservatism, under God’s guidance, that I drew strength enough to keep going.”
I have no doubt that part of the reason such facets of Bobby DeLaughter’s character never made it to the screen has to do with the left-wing politics of Reiner and others involved in the project, but that is not likely the main reason. I suspect the main reason has to do with the lack of artistic depth that characterizes Hollywood. Real people are simply too unconventional to fit into Major Motion Pictures. Real people say and do things that seem bizarre to Hollywood types, and Hollywood types run to their blinders for protection. How fascinating that the man who was largely responsible for pitching Beckwith into prison holds views that are not typically identified with civil rights figures. What an opportunity for someone possessed of an artistic sensibility. But instead, the movie gives us Alec Baldwin acting like Alec Baldwin with a Southern accent.
One more example: If you watch Ghosts of Mississippi, you come away from it believing that DeLaughter’s family consisted of racist country-clubbers who berated DeLaughter for taking up the trial and actively tried to thwart his efforts. Should you read The Ghosts of Medgar Evers, you will learn that
Bobby DeLaughter was uncomfortable with a few other embellishments. The scene in which he has lunch at the country club with his parents, who expressed criticism of blacks, concerned him, because he was never a member of a country club and his parents generally supported him in the Beckwith investigation. [italics added]
There are many other examples, all of them duly listed by Morris, and they amount to a serious indictment. Hollywood rolled into town and filmed one lie after another in the name of artistic license, justice, and racial reconciliation, only to produce a boring, lowbrow, conventional flop. It would be amusing if the subject matter were not so important and if people’s reputations had not been maligned. (In another Reiner film, A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson stares Tom Cruise down and yells: “You can’t handle the truth!” He could have been addressing Reiner or Hollywood, regardless of their good intentions.)
I will never forget the spectacle of Bobby DeLaughter, standing in front of the audience at the premiere, apologizing to his family for the way they were portrayed in the film. He tried to be nice about it and is a better man than Ibecause I would have dragged Reiner & Co. into court. Nor will I forget something that Morris reported in The Ghosts of Medgar Evers. After hearing DeLaughter’s speech, “The director was stunned and furious. ‘Bobby’s ruined our Mississippi premiere,’ he said afterward. ‘I could’ve done an Oliver Stone on this movie, but I didn’t. Did they want me to do an Oliver Stone?’”
To someone in the feverish grip of the Hollywood mentality, a man’s concerns about the fact that his family has been subject to a malicious act of character assassinationwhich will shortly be witnessed by a crowd of friends and strangersare as nothing compared with the almighty importance of a Major Motion Picture. I am reminded that Faulkner once said that Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was “worth any number of old ladies.” Perhaps, but Reiner is no Keats, and Ghosts of Mississippi isn’t worth a chamber pot. Willie Morris found it difficult to say so directly, but his sharp eye could not be blunted, and The Ghosts of Medgar Evers, despite Morris’ amicability, amounts to a rather damning document where Hollywood is concerned. My advice is to forget the movie and read the book.CP