Reviewed By Nijla Mumin

Mississippi Damned (2009) [ Movie Website ]
Written and Directed by Tina Mabry
Runtime: 120 Minutes

Mississippi Damned, written and directed by Tina Mabry, carves out an expansive visual presence with its bold and layered portrayal of a black family in Mississippi. The film follows two generations, spanning the years of 1986 and 1998. The older generation includes sisters Delores, Charlie, Anna, their husbands Junior and Tyrone and their mother Alice. They struggle through joblessness, alcoholism, domestic abuse, gambling and denial. The younger generation of Sammy, Leigh and Kari actively rebel against the vices that their parents fall victim to. Yet, in many of their attempts to break free, they end up reinforcing that same behavior.

Mabry plays on the themes of silence and denial and their ability to attenuate the potential for a family to transcend their circumstances. In the film, we see Charlie, the mother of Sammy, struggle immensely with alcoholism and past sexual abuse. As she buries her pain in liquor and house parties, her own son suffers the same trauma. The silence between the two and other family members concerning this issue only exacerbates the toll it takes on everyone’s lives. Without a healthy mother-son relationship, they become one in the same.

Characters in Mississippi Damned are imbued with depth, making it difficult to describe them with the divisive categories of “bad men” or “good women.” This often separates many independent films from mainstream features: an ability to conceive of characters that do not fit into rigid roles. The heroes are also the villains in this film. Young Sammy, a wide-eyed teenager just trying to buy food for his family and get a basketball scholarship to college, ends up succumbing to the vices that he sought to escape and then recycles that same behavior with another family member in acts of sexual dominance. Further, Leigh, a lesbian young woman fighting to experience love despite the familial stigmas attached to her sexuality, becomes romantically obsessed and reckless. And as much as we would love to hate Tyrone, the abusive, trite husband to Anna, we see them share a tearful embrace in the hospital room following the miscarriage of their child, a recurring tragedy for them. Tyrone’s character and his actions are portrayed as consequences of the poverty and joblessness he endures throughout the film. So while there is no excuse for his disrespect of Anna, there is a foundation for his behavior.

Bradford Young’s cinematography serves as a rich, visceral supplement to the fearlessness of Mabry’s script and direction. It is ethereal and soft in places where sisters sit around trading jokes while a younger Kari plays the piano. It is bold and sassy in the opening scene where we are pulled into a lively party and card game accented with oranges and reds. At times, the complex character interactions mingle with evocative cinematography to elate and unsettle. In one scene, Charlie enters her mother’s room to ask for twenty dollars. Alice, who occupies a mostly comedic role throughout the film, attempts to thwart her daughter’s requests until Charlie speaks of being sexually abused by her deceased father and the silent consent that Alice gave. At once, the camera forms a tight close-up of Alice’s face as she twists and turns in discomfort at the mention of the abuse she ignored. The strength of Charlie addressing these issues is only compounded by corresponding visual of Alice, resulting in a deep feeling of uneasiness—the feeling of being trapped, as Alice appears to be in the shot. In another scene, young Sammy rides in the car with a drug dealer/molester, and we can barely see either character due to the darkness. The lighting and shadowed view into what is going on enhances the tension and anxiety. Sammy’s team had just won the basketball game and he would be on his way to getting a scholarship, but the quick transition to this dark car, and the following scene, only darkens the joy of that moment.

Mabry also demonstrates a knack with dialogue and foreshadowing with characters’ terse exchange hovering between humor and pathos. For example, concerning Anna’s pregnancy, Alice comments, “If this one make it!” A bitter honesty mixed with familial warmth colors such scenes, and illuminates the intricacies born of black families. Subtle touches of atmosphere also pepper the film with rich Southern nuances. Short interludes where an elderly black man plays a harmonica in the neighborhood or Delores and Anna sit outside talking and washing fish in a bucket fold in Mississippi culture with brilliant subtlety.

Yet for all of its bitter honesty and realism, one has to wonder how much emotional intensity an audience can endure. Screenwriters are often warned against writing scripts where dramatic or suspenseful scenes seem to run one after another, without a clear respite for the audience to breath before the next one. Mississippi Damned sequences scenes of violence followed by scenes of anger followed by scenes of sexual abuse. While the stakes are raised, one could notice audience members oftentimes squirming in their seats—uncomfortable, but also intrigued. This is the gravity, the pull of this film. It evokes discomfort as an inevitable result of pain and denial in this family. There aren’t many respites to ongoing cycles of pain and abuse. The respite results in the confrontation and acknowledgement of that pain, and that is the goal, albeit unachievable for some characters, of this film.

The closing sequence in the film magnifies parallels between the suffering that both generations face throughout. In one visual juxtaposition, we see Sammy and his mother Charlie, once again reunited by the alcoholism and sexual abuse that they never confronted, in a way that haunts and leaves one aching for them. In that same sequence, Kari takes a major step toward the recognition of her family’s flaws, and embarks on a personal journey that one is to believe will inevitably enrich her future and her family’s as well. Ultimately, Mabry’s genius lies in her ability to expose one family’s vulnerabilities, demons and love that remains amidst it all—a portrait of familial distress, angst and hope. In many families, just as with the one in this film, silence has its place. Mississippi Damned speaks into that silence and denial, the resulting echo being a daring cinematic journey.

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NIJLA BASEEMA MUMIN is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley. In 2006, she founded Sweet Potato Pie Productions, which specializes in the creation of narrative films, documentaries and photography that examine the most intimate details of the human condition. She was the recipient of the 2009 Paul Robeson Award for Best Feature Screenplay. Her website is http://sweetpotatopieproductions.com/.