Sundance Day 8: Ballast on CNN

Okay, so I've been hearing a lot about Ballast . Mostly what I'm hearing is along the lines of, "I LOVE that movie. That's the best movie I've seen at Sundance this year," or, "Oh my gosh, I've heard such great things about that movie!" These comments are streaming from the mouths of my fellow white Americans, which is no huge surprise, because white Americans are exceptionally well-represented in Park City this week.

But a handful of people seem less pleased with how Ballast represents black Mississippians and the way that it addresses, or fails to address, the race issue in general. In post-screening Q&A's, this has been raised several times, generally by people anxious to press the issue—people unwilling to accept simple answers, pat or otherwise.

Ballast is the story of a black family in the Delta. The father is absent, the mother is a former drug addict and minimum-wage janitor, and the kid is literally fighting his way through adolescence, stealing money for drugs and intimidating relatives with fire-arms. This could all read stereotypically and one-dimensionally.

Except that, in my opinion, it doesn't. The plot is sparse and the story is carried more on atmosphere than character development, but the characters DO develop. When Marlee realizes the immediate danger of her son's situation, they geographically relocate to safer ground. The characters learn how to relate to each other. They make changes in their lives, collectively, as a family unit, and individually. There is no hard ending, no certainty, no long-term guarantees, but for the moment, life is more hopeful than it has been.

The film has one white character and no overt mention of race. Racial themes were present in the original script, but in the end, the filmmaker, Lance Hammer, deemed the story stronger without such complication. He was right.

The overall situation of this family could be related to race in a historical sense (this generality is, as far as I can tell, what one African-American woman from New Orleans took offense with, following a Salt Lake City screening), but the characters could have just as easily been cast as white people in any impoverished community.

But the characters aren't white, and the story isn't anywhere. The characters are black and the story is set in the Mississippi Delta. According to Lance, the Delta came first and the ethnicity of the characters is a sheer matter of demographics. So a white man from Los Angeles gives us his perception of black Mississippians. Or at least, his perception of one imaginary family of black Mississippians.

I don't know. It's murky. And while exposure in Park City is limited to a specific audience, people of various races have had both positive and negative reactions to the film.

It would be fascinating to screen the film in the Mississippi Delta, to gage the reactions on home turf. But what I think about it, for now at least, is that talented actors are gaining exposure beyond any of our expectations (and I say this from a position of privilege—you HOPE to make a movie and take it to Sundance—you hope and you try, but you never expect), and the sky's the limit as to where this experience could lead them.

As for the Delta, it's in the blood. People who grow up in the Delta and become successful later in life almost always return and invest in their hometowns. How can the potential success of these actors be anything but positive for the Delta?

Another quick, Mississippi-movie related thought: Yesterday, Oxford's April Grayson screened her short, Another Word for Family, in Cinema Slam , a smaller festival here in Park City. (This will also be at Crossroads, folks!)

Shot in her hometown of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, April's film explores the racial history of place, from the intensely personal perspective of older, white Mississippians—namely, relatives and family friends. She compares being obsessed with the Delta to loving a recovering addict. "You want to support them," she says, "but sometimes you just want to run away."

One of her characters, a former high school principal, tells how, once, in the 1960's, he called an African-American student "boy," a term he unthinkingly used with all male students. The student leaned forward, looked the principal dead in the eye, and said, "Don't you EVER call me that again."

To me, this story illustrates much about the nature of progressive thought in Mississippi. In many cases, lack of awareness is the true problem, more so than malicious intent, which is why films like Another Word for Family are so important.

One final point: one of the other Cine Slam shorts from yesterday, Ditto, a light-hearted comedy, set in a board meeting, had an African-American character springing to catch a beloved coffee-mug, that was accidentally flying through air. A white woman in the audience called into question the man's ethnicity, saying, "why did you choose THAT character to catch the mug?," clearly playing on the stereotype of black athleticism.

The question seemed a bit arcane to me, and obviously to the filmmaker, who said, "Honestly, it was logistics, and that bit of script was partially that man's idea, so I let him catch the mug." Insert eye-roll. BUT, what I did take from this, and what was reiterated by Francine Thomas-Reynolds this morning, when she, Anita and I were discussing reactions to Ballast, is that people really, really seem to want to talk about race.

And that has all sorts of implications.

Previous Comments


Great post, Cheree. I've been wondering when/how the racial aspect of "Ballast" would be discussed and debated, and it sounds like that ultimately is a good thing (if white people don't just repond with eye-rolling). The point, as you make well, is that people are hungry for intelligent race discussions—and resentful because we haven't had them enough. I haven't seen "Ballast," but I've been uneasy since the beginning to be honest to know that a white director and mostly white crew would make such a film with, seemingly, very little input from African Americans other than the actors. On the other hand, I hope he pulled it off well. But it's impossible to tell from the hype out of a largely white film festival. Just as white people too often have a negative "I see black people" reaction (such as to neighborhoods in Jackson many will never go), they can also have an overly positive "I see black people" response to a film that bothers to go places where Hollywood and much of America refuses to go—whether it pulls it off well or not. So it could go either way, it seems, and frankly people will likely never agree if a white California guy should have made that film, going into people's actual homes in the Delta, and what message that sends. What matters most is having the conversation. And making enough films that incorporate all sorts of people so that a film like this doesn't carry the same implications for so many by default.


The bottom line is that no matter what you do, someone will always have something negative to say. All you can do is put it out there and hope for the best, right?



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