Achieving Authenticity in the Film Ghosts of Mississippi: Identity and Authorship in Historical Narratives

Article excerpt

When it was announced to the public that a movie depicting the trial of the murderer of Medgar Evers would be produced, African-Americans proclaimed that the upcoming Ghosts of Mississippi would be an eye-opening account of the prevalence of racism in the 1950s. However, several months later, supporters of Ghosts of Mississippi protested when producer Fred Zollo of Mississippi Burning fame announced Rob Reiner would direct the film. On the surface, one would surmise that the two-time Academy Award nominated director would be an excellent choice for the project. However, many felt that Reiner, nicknamed "Meathead" in the 1970s for his portrayal of Michael Stivic on All in the Family, lacked one very important criterion on his directing resume: Reiner was not an African-American. "The story of Medgar Evers needs to be told by an African-American director," Spike Lee proclaimed on a television interview, stating that, "no white director could ever know how to tell a story concerning the disintegration of black identity through the murder of Evers" (Reynolds, 1996). Many black activists followed Lee's lead in the protest of the directorial choice.

This prevalent attitude formed Ghosts of Mississippi's greatest problem: if people did not believe the storyteller, they would not likely believe the story, either. Critics argued that Reiner's depiction of the film had a white male bias, as it focused on the trial of then-accused murderer Byron De La Beckwith rather than focusing on Evers, the African-American leader of the 1960s (Mitchell, 1996). The role of Medgar Evers was reduced to a cameo appearance featuring only the scene in which he was killed; the rest of the film celebrated the white hero, Bobby DeLaughter, who fought to bring justice to the case three decades later. African-Americans felt shortchanged, stating that this should be the story of an African-American tragedy, rather than the story of another white man's triumph. Still, Fred Zollo defended Reiner, stating that Ghosts of Mississippi is not a "film about the civil rights movement. This is a story about the pursuit of justice of the murderer of an American hero" (Wiltz, 1997).

Clearly, the question of authorship and the right to tell someone else's story is central to the controversy surrounding Ghosts of Mississippi. Should a white director be permitted to tell the story of an African-American leader? Could a person who was not Jewish have directed Schindler's List? Can a male researcher credibly critique feminist works? Hardt (1993) states that the "question of authenticity remains one of the major issues underlying the critique of contemporary social thought" (p. 49). Consequently, the debate about the right of a person to portray a story of someone or some event that pertains to a different race, sex, religion, or culture is an interesting one because, at its core, it juxtaposes a persons' right to tell a story with the publics' right to hear the story accurately. Critics all tend to agree that Ghosts of Mississippi is "85 to 90 percent true," but, as Medgar Evers' brother Charles states, "the bigger problem is that other 'true' facts are shunted to the background" (Wiltz, 1997). Yet, one must wonder: could anyone, even Evers' brother, tell a story that is 100 percent true? More succinctly, is authenticity attainable? This monograph answers the latter question in the negative, arguing that authenticity is an ideal that is unreachable and that American society should implement a new standard for measuring the "accuracy" of historical film narratives. Additionally, it will argue that while the need to stay true to collective memory will often require direction and narration from people of the same identity group, the perceived need to relegate black directors to black films and white directors to white films is not always necessary. These arguments will be developed by examining first, prior research arguing that authenticity is unachievable; second, racial authorship controversies in films of the past decade; and third, the specific debate concerning Reiner's Ghosts of Mississippi. …

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