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Mississippi Damned is a rare, exceptional film, one that covers enormous amounts of emotional territory and manages to impart sadness and hope in equal measures.
Written and directed by Tina Mabry, who penned the hilarious Itty Bitty Titty Committee, the movie dives deep into the heart of the American south, with an unflinching eye towards racism and poverty. Based on true events, the drama is achingly, refreshingly real.
The film kicks off in 1986, and centers on the lives of two African American families and their closest friends, barely scraping by in a rural Mississippi town.
Our protagonist, Kari (played as a young girl by Kylee Russell and later by Tessa Thompson), who acts as our eyes and ears throughout the film.
She has a lesbian sister, Leigh (Chasity Kershal Hammitte), and a cousin Sammy (Malcolm David Kelley), who is a young basketball star.
Their parents and close friends are all struggling — with money, with addictions, with violent histories and difficult pasts.
Charlie (Jossie Thacker) is an alcoholic living with a man who sleeps around on her. Anna (Simbi Kali Williams) is pregnant and near saintly, keeping watch over Kari and feeding her when there’s no food in the house. She’s married to an abusive guy who doesn’t work, forcing her to take care of business.
Kari and Leigh’s folks scream at Leigh about her sexuality and constantly argue about money — their father Junior (Adam Clark) is a gambling addict.
Finally, Sammy is a promising young athlete looking at the possibility of a major scholarship and a pro career, but he’s forced to perform sex acts for money just to go on team trips.
There’s enough drama to fill about six seasons of General Hospital, with the tacking of such issues as rape, child abuse, domestic violence, illness, death, imprisonment, child molestation, addiction, mental illness and abandonment.
With that much weight — combined with the additional heaviness that comes with any examination of poverty — one would think that the film would crash under it’s own gravitas. But carried by strong performances and assured direction, Mississippi Damned flows very well.
The acting is excellent across the board, with exceptional turns from Thompson, Thacker, Williams and Kelley.
Drawing from the sharply written script, Thompson imbues Kari with such strength and spirit that it becomes impossible not to root for her, while Kelley does an excellent job playing a troubled young man on the edge of a very slippery slope. Thacker and Williams have meaty roles in the troubled Charlie and long-suffering Anna; and each and every cast member down to the bit parts is spot-on.
As the film goes on and the time period shifts to the late 1990s, the children grow older and begin to repeat the mistakes their parents have made — sometimes they make entirely new ones. The older generation struggles with all their former problems, with illness and age wearing them further.
It’s depressing, sure, but Kari somehow stays determined to grow into something more. She aspires to go to college and become a professional musician, even after she suffers from sexual violence at a young age and constant financial pressure to stay and help support her family.
Sammy and Leigh aren’t so lucky. Sammy’s NBA career doesn’t go as planned, and Leigh remains obsessed with Paula (Jasmine Burke), her high school sweetheart-turned heartbreak. Both begin to repeat the same patterns that got them into trouble in the first place.
As the picture’s primary lesbian character, Leigh is sympathetic and flawed (much like everyone else). At the beginning of the film, she’s a butch high school girl utterly in love with Paula, who is sexy and slinky — all smiles and flirtatious looks to Leigh, but keeping a boyfriend behind Leigh’s back.
Hammitte brings a great deal to the role. We genuinely feel for Leigh as her mother and father scold her for her “behavior.” We’re happy for her as she and Paula kiss innocently in the bedroom, and devastated when Paula shies away from her in public.
It’s the sort of heartbreak that most queer women have experienced before — presented with brutal honesty. How she deals with this event comes to define her as an adult.
Perhaps the film’s greatest triumph is in its unwavering authenticity.
The movie shies away from very little, connecting all of the invisible dots that lie in between victims and abusers, shining light on the reasons why events have transpired the way they have. Violent scenes are staged and shot straight up, with a dynamic camera that refuses to pan away from the ugliness. Depictions of sexual violence are a bit more implicit — though no less disturbing.
Certainly, the realism applies to the more mundane details as well. Everything in the film breathes authenticity — the straight-out-of ’86 dance music, the slang, even the cars and dingy houses feel just right. Part of this lies in the excellent cinematography and obvious attention to detail, and part on the music and prop selection.
It’s difficult to find fault with Mississippi Damned — it’s clearly a personal, important piece of work from a very talented filmmaker.
This is one of the better dramas to released in 2009 — gay or straight — and it’s absolutely worth catching during its run on the LGBT and independent film festival circuits this summer.
Visit the film’s official website at mississippidamned.com
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Beasts of the Southern Wild, A Hollywood Film With Roots on Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast, Opens Tomorrow
The Gulf Coast loses a football field of land every 45 minutes, and much of that loss happens in the bayous of Southern Louisiana, where roads disappear into canals, winding their way through swiftly eroding marshes. The population here is a mix of white Cajuns, African-Americans, and several Native American tribes, and most residents can date their roots here to before Louisiana was part of the US.
Some families in this former French colony have only been speaking English for about a generation, and recall childhoods lived mostly outside of the system of monetary exchange: their family ate only what they could catch or grow, and lived in homes they built themselves on land handed down across generations. There are few shops here, and many of the homes are built on stilts, a dozen feet or more off the ground, to defend against the flooding that becomes more common with every foot of land that vanishes.
The nearest movie theater is about an hour away, but on Sunday night 600 people filled the local recreation center for a Hollywood premiere. Beasts of the Southern Wild, a feature recently acquired by Fox Searchlight, was shot in this rural community in 2010 by a filmmaking collaborative from New Orleans. The film has already won critical acclaim and top prizes at the Sundance and Cannes festivals, and been celebrated as an early Oscar contender. Now, a few days before the film’s release, the crew has come home.
Beasts tells the story of a young girl named Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was six years old at the time of filming) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry, a 47-year-old Baker from New Orleans who like most of the cast had never acted before), struggling to survive in a magical but disappearing community called the Bathtub.
Beasts captures the vibrancy and complexity of a Louisiana community that refuses to abandon lands being lost to coastal erosion and threatened by hurricanes and oil spills. The film’s themes were given a greater intensity by real-world events: on the first day of filming, the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded not far from here, killing 11 workers, blackening beaches and marshes in five US states and devastating fishing and local economies.
The threat of disaster, both natural and man-made, constantly hovers over this region. The oil spill came as people were still rebuilding homes destroyed in the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The film premiered here as tropical storm Debby churns through the Gulf, causing warnings and raising fears in coastal communities from Florida to Texas.
A far as Montegut may seem from the modern world, much of Beasts was shot even further south of here, on the other side of the levees that provide some protection from the frequent storms. Isle de Jean Charles, site of some the films’ most enduring images, is home to just a couple dozen families, mostly from the Biloxi-Chitimacha tribe. Their houses can only be reached by traveling across a narrow road that even on the best of days is half-submerged by water coming from both sides.
For months, the cast and crew lived here and were embraced as family. Everyone in this close-knit community pitched in; appearing in the film, helping to build the sets, or feeding the cast and crew.
“They captured, touched, a little part of what its like to be down here,” said Michael Pitre, who runs a mechanic shop here and helped work on the boats used in the film. “As far as living of the land like we do. When I was coming up, that’s what we ate: shrimp, crabs. That’s all we had to eat. That’s all we could afford because we would catch it ourselves.”
Benh Zeitlin, the film’s director and cowriter, agrees. “It is all real,” he said. “I don’t think I invented anything for this movie. It’s all things that I’ve seen and heard and experienced in different parts of Louisiana, and it’s all kind of concentrated on this one island in the film.”
Dwight Henry, who plays his lead role with a passionate intensity, feels this community’s struggle to recover from recent disasters and displacement is the same as that faced in New Orleans, where more than 100,000 former residents still have mot returned since the 2005 storms. “We so resilient down here,” he said. “We going to refuse to leave the land that we live and love, and the things we built with our bare hands.”
Although Beasts is fantastical and mysterious, it moves with the propulsion of the best action films, and the crowd was clearly moved, laughing at the humorous moments and holding their breath at dramatic scenes. For Zeitlin, this is always the audience he pictured seeing the film, not New York arthouses or Cannes. He said he and his crew never dreamed they’d have Hollywood distribution – they imagined themselves touring around the US, showing the film in community centers.
As the credits rolled, the room erupted in a sustained applause. Zeitlin took the stage to thank everyone who helped, and invited all in attendance to an afterparty at the local Lions Club, a community space next door. “This was what was in my head for two years when we were editing, said Zeitlin, as he accepted hugs and congratulations. “I feel finished with the film for the first time.”
Pictures above from Beasts of Southern Wild premiere in Montegut, featuring director Benh Zeitlin, star Quvenzhané Wallis, and other cast, crew, and audience members.