The year is 1963, and the place is a Mississippi courtroom. A white Southerner named Byron de La Beckwith is on trial for the murder of Medgar Evers, a black civil-rights leader whose powerful voice galvanized Americans to action in the South and far beyond.
Briefly interrupting the proceedings, another white Southerner strides into the chamber, walks up to the defendant, and shakes his hand with a congratulatory smile. The visitor is a former governor of the state, and his friendly greeting takes place in full view of everyone present. No wonder the accused goes free soon afterward, when the all-white-male jury ends the trial by declaring itself at a stalemate.
This is one of the more illuminating moments in "Ghosts of Mississippi," a rambling but heartfelt look at an episode in civil-rights history that many Americans might prefer to forget. Mr. Beckwith walked away from two hung-jury mistrials, and stayed free for more than 30 years.
Only in 1994 did the efforts of Bobby DeLaughter - a determined young prosecutor who was only a child when the crime took place - bring in the conviction that previous juries had refused to give.
Crucial to his success were newly released documents pointing to behind-the-scenes jury tampering in the '60s, and also the tenacity of Evers's widow, who steadfastly refused to let matters rest. She urged Mr. DeLaughter on when others advised him to give up, and eventually provided a much-needed transcript of the first trial that had long vanished from sight.
"Ghosts of Mississippi" is more earnest than melodramatic in unfolding its compelling story. The movie's impact comes mainly from the intrinsic interest of its subject, and from the clear sincerity of its main performances. Alec Baldwin is likable and persuasive as DeLaughter, although he frequently comes off as a clone of Kevin Costner's energetic lawyer in the far superior "JFK." Whoopi Goldberg brings great dignity to the widowed Myrlie Evers, who sustains her sense of righteous indignation without lapsing once into maudlin self-pity.
Best of all is James Woods in an Oscar-calibre performance as Beckwith, whose outrageous attitudes and behaviors are made all the more chilling by our awareness that they're drawn directly from life.
Rob Reiner directed "Ghosts of Mississippi" from Lewis Colick's screenplay, and both deserve credit for their conscientious work. In the end, though, a race-related irony lingers in the movie despite its positive achievements.
Beckwith's conviction and other progressive developments since the 1960s are certainly good news. Yet it can't be said that the United States is finally free of the racial biases that have dogged it for centuries.
If it were, "Ghosts of Mississippi" might have the black Myrlie Evers as its central character, with the white Bobby DeLaughter showing up for an occasional dramatic scene. As things stand, it's the other way around.
By making this black-centered historical event into the tale of a white attorney who dominates the movie from beginning to end, Reiner and his colleagues unwittingly show the still-enduring power of white privilege in the American power center called Hollywood.
'Ghosts of Mississippi' has a PG-13 rating. It contains violence and vulgar language.