January 13, 1997 12:00 PM

Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg

It was not until 1994 that white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 shooting of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Two earlier trials resulted in hung juries. The third prosecution, spearheaded by Jackson, Miss., assistant D.A. Bobby DeLaughter, came after years of prodding by Evers’s widow, Myrlie, and investigations by local reporter Jerry Mitchell, who found evidence of jury tampering in the second trial.

This is a powerful story, but it has defeated director Rob Reiner. Ghosts is slow, reverent and hushed—perhaps he thought the safest way to deal with such an imposing subject was first to render it inert. The trial scenes, conversely, are too clipped. Most seriously, Ghosts gives no sense of what Evers was like. We are told only that he was a devoted family man, but even this isn’t much more than a dramatic device to explain why DeLaughter, with two daughters, feels morally obliged to take on a controversial case.

Baldwin, as DeLaughter, and Goldberg, as Myrlie Evers, are able to act with much more nuance and depth than the shallow script allows. As Beckwith, James Woods is shockingly off base. The part is smallish, yet Woods delivers a lip-smacking star turn, making Beckwith a wicked but lively old cracker. Woods seems to be having the time of his life. That, can’t be what he intended. (PG-13)

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