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Viewer Guide: “Ghosts of Mississippi” and “Once Upon a River”

October 15, 2021 | Richard Peña


Ghosts of Mississippi (1996).

This week’s classic is Ghosts of Mississippi, the 1996 docudrama directed by Rob Reiner. 

Dramatizing events during the three decade, on-and-off investigation of the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Ghosts of Mississippi opens with Evers’ 1963 shooting in Jackson, Mississippi, by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, played by James Woods with smug repugnance. Yet when two trials in the immediate aftermath—with two all-white juries—fail to convict De La Beckwith, the case appears to be closed, just another fait accompli in the era’s deep freeze of systemic racism. Both of De La Beckwith’s trials ended with hung juries, an important distinction that helps to keep the promise of justice alive for Evers’ stoic wife Myrlie, portrayed in an understated performance by Whoopi Goldberg. When a 1989 newspaper report alleges jury tampering, Myrlie finds herself joined by an unexpected new ally in the form of Bobby DeLaughter, played by Alec Baldwin, an assistant DA whose conscience gradually starts to get the best of him. But 30 years Evers’ murder, with the original evidence, court transcripts and murder weapon all mysteriously “lost,” is it still possible for the truth to shine through the darkness of the past? 

Ghosts of Mississippi producer Frederick Zollo’s 1988 film, Mississippi Burning—about another set of cold case murders from the civil rights era—had helped prompt the news story which led to re-opening the case against Byron De La Beckwith. Director Rob Reiner strove to be as factually accurate as possible, and engaged Myrlie Evers to serve as a production advisor on the film. Mrs. Evers had in fact gone on to her own prominent civil rights career, which included a term as NAACP Chairperson. Released to mixed reviews, the film was a box office disappointment, but did garner two Academy Award nominations, one for James Woods as Best Supporting Actor, and the second for the make-up artists who created his amazingly convincing old-age look. And while prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter may have been a hero in the film, after becoming a state judge he ran afoul of the law himself in 2009, charged with obstructing justice, and ultimately served 13 months in prison. 


Once Upon a River (2019).

This’s weeks indie is Once Upon a River, a 2019 coming of age drama marking the directorial debut of Haroula Rose. 

Set in 1977, Once Upon a River stars Kenadi DeLaCerna as Margo Crane, a 15-year-old adolescent living in rural Michigan with her father, Bernard, played by Tatanka Means. Part Native American, Margo is still adjusting to the sudden departure of her white mother, who left the family the year before to “find herself.” Adrift and restless, about the only thing that brings Margo any satisfaction is her expert marksmanship, a skill admired—among other things—by her father’s half-brother, Cal Murray. Intrigued by Cal’s invitation to join him on a hunting expedition, Margo’s relationship with her half-uncle takes a disturbingly inappropriate turn that quickly leads to a cascade of tragic events. Suddenly on her own with only her wits, a rifle and the winding river for her escape, Margo embarks on an odyssey to find her mother. After a brief romantic interlude, it’s only when Margo encounters an ailing recluse named Smoke that she begins to learn the real meaning of familial love and commitment. 

Based on the 2011 novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River is a prequel to Campbell’s 2003 novel Q Road, which follows the story of Margo’s yet to be born daughter Rachel as an adolescent. The production was almost halted due to the difficulty in finding the right actress to play Margo, with the casting of Kenadi DeLaCerna confirmed only a few days before the scheduled start of filming. Although theatrical release was squelched by the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was screened at many film festivals, where some audiences expressed discomfort with the ambiguous sexual relationship between Margo and her Uncle Cal. But director Haroula Rose wanted the narrative to dramatize a young woman finding her way in a man’s world, committing the same mistakes granted to adolescent boys in countless coming of age stories. As a musician and song writer, director Rose also designed the film’s soundtrack to be an integral aspect of her final film. And for anyone wondering, yes, Tatanka Means is indeed the son of Native American activist and actor, Russell Means. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

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