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A Tale of Race, Murder, Mississippi, and Hollywood

by Willie Morris

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-45956-1
Publisher: Random House

 A certain modesty of scope, a specificity of observation, and an adherence to the ingrained understanding of a native are what make this ``the-making-of'' story a surprisingly successful book about the legacy of the civil rights movement. Morris (New York Days, 1993, etc.) gives a good-natured chronicle of the making of Ghosts of Mississippi, Rob Reiner's movie about the 1994 conviction of Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers three decades before. It's a curious mixture of a serious civil rights history and a whimsical peek into the Hollywood fiction factory. But these elements are held together because the movie was based on such fresh facts that it became a small part of the history itself. The Hollywood and the history are also held together because they're both rooted in Morris's personal experience growing up near the movie's setting and as an originator of the project. Ghosts of Mississippi attracted criticism for its focus on the white hero-prosecutor, Bobby DeLaughter. But Morris's sympathetic account leaves little doubt of the enormous, and probably rare, amount of good faith behind the project while documenting the complex route, the combination of creative talents and real-life characters, that brought the story from a memo by Morris all the way to the screen. But while Morris notes that he ``had grown up with this diabolic hatred,'' he reveals almost nothing about his own experience in the Jim Crow South, sticking mainly to the landscape in his reveries. Still, he waxes eloquent on Mississippi's deep, distinctive past and uses his childhood recollections to otherwise great effect in observing the movie's dramatization of that past. If, in the words of film critic Jami Bernard, the movie made ``a convincing case for why history weighs so heavily'' on its hero, Morris equally convincingly shows history weighing heavily, for once, on Hollywood. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen) (Author tour)