Mississippi's Image in Film

Sundance 2010 may not have had a Mississippi made feature film, but a strong number of films in the festival program embraced rural America with open arms and enveloped bluntly realistic experiences with strong story telling. The festival screened over 120 films from all parts of the world, and the ones that I saw offered authentic personal experiences, rather than the slit- your-throat material of boys gone wild on drugs and violence that initially defined the indie film scene.

After the festival, I had a chat with John Nein, one of the festival programmers, on Sundance 2010. "Once we lock the program, we get to see how the films play out with the audiences and critics, said Nein, who was noticeably more relaxed than when I first spoke with him a few weeks before the festival began. "The reception of the smaller films was welcoming and positive," he said.

"People embraced the smaller movies," said Nein. "Winter's Bone, not only won the grand jury prize for dramatic film, but people were talking about it on the streets." Though the movie takes place in the Ozark Mountains, Nein noted that this film was one example of a movie representing certain "preoccupations of Southern films," such as "tradition within families, isolation and individualism, history, place and living outside of society." Like Winter's Bone, Animal Kingdom, which took the top prize for world cinema dramatic film, peeled back layers of complexity within a family engaged in organized crime.

I also loved Veiko Öunpuu's The Temptation of St. Tony, a zany surreal art film from Estonia. This was the first time an Estonian film was at Sundance, and according to the film's producer, it was one of two produced in the past year. "You have now seen 50% of the movies from Estonia," the producer said laughing. In this dark comedy (which reminded me in an off handed-way of Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet), poor Tony is a mid-level manager, afflicted with the sickness of capitalism that involves a luxury car, a lavish home, a trophy wife, a slutty girlfriend and other carnal excesses.

Every Sundance has at least one film addressing the racial divide in this country. This year, the documentary Freedom Riders tackled desegregation with objectivity and without a pity party. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson focused on the courageous efforts of an integrated band of college students challenging the correctness of civil-right inequities that plagued the country in the sixties.

Past Sundance films have teetered along a fine line balancing racism, poverty and bigotry against victimization. A few years ago, the critically acclaimed documentary LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton brought to the forefront the struggles of LaLee Wallace, a great grandmother barely able to live in the poverty stricken Mississippi Delta. I was struck by the fact that the film was subtitled and that Wallace did not have running water in her mobile home. Is that the legacy of cotton?

Then, there was Lance Hammer's film Ballast, which won awards for direction and cinematography at Sundance 2008. The film simmered in a gloomy stew of suicide, drugs, violence and isolation among a dysfunctional family in the Mississippi Delta. The film's credibility and authenticity seemed built on the stripped dignity of a rural black community.

Prom Night in Mississippi, which screened last year at Sundance, played the "nothing-much-has-changed-in-Mississippi" tune. Canadian director Paul Saltzman spent time in Mississippi during the turbulent sixties and returned forty years later to see if anything changed. He suspected that racial enlightenment had not arrived and sure enough, he found a story validating his suspicions. Saltzman's film is about the first integrated prom in Charleston, Miss. It took place in 2008, and we learn from the students that some white parents (who refused to be interviewed for fear of looking ignorant) continue to insist upon holding an all-white prom.

As one of my friends commented, it seems that a large number of films portray the Southern experience as a monolithic, stereotypical state where race relations is the only topic of the day. Certainly, Mississippi has a tragic civil rights record, but it also has a vibrant history of music, literature, sports, performers, business and civic leaders and fundamentally good people. You may not know it from Ghost of Mississippi or Mississippi Burning, but Mississippians fall in love, date, get married, have children, lose loved ones, recover from broken relationships, tell unbelievably funny jokes and have great childhood memories. "Where are the films telling the stories of doing all of this without having to remind the world that we're black, white, or Mississippian?" asked a friend who preferred not to be named.

Sundance 2010 was an overwhelming success because the people in the films represent aspects of our lives. "A lot of this year's films balanced comedy and drama," said Nein. "They were true to life. That some films leaned towards the slightly humorous, didn't take away from the gravity of relationships, and people came away not feeling quite as bad about the world."


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