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