Taking its name from the provocative Nina Simone song, Tina Mabry's Mississippi Damned reveals itself as, in essence, an adaptation of the downbeat lyrics:"Lord have mercy on this land of mine/We all gonna get it in due time/I don't belong here/I don't belong there/I've even stopped believing in prayer...Oh but this whole country is full of lies/You're all gonna die and die like flies."
Yeah, this one ain't for the kids.
Written and directed by Mabry (recent recipient of a prestigious United States Artists grant) and based on her own family history, the film is a generation-spanning tale of physical and sexual abuse, poor choices, missed opportunities, poverty and strife, and even sickness and disease. It's all of Shakespeare's tragedies wrapped up in one story, updated and set in the American South. The plot, such as it is, doesn't require much explanation: three sisters and their families live and then relive some truly awful experiences, with only young Kari keeping hope alive that one day she will escape the cycle.
The production values and acting are very impressive for an independently produced film, particularly considering there is more action, movement, and variety of setting than most small films would dare attempt. And, although seemingly every other scene presents itself as ripe for some scene-chewing, Mabry keeps the cast on an even keel. The actors are comfortable in their characters and the scenes mostly develop naturally, lending authentic emotion to the story. Ironically, the overwhelming bleakness that exists as the film's greatest flaw is also the central reason it's so affecting.
Dissimilar as they may be, Mississippi Damned has unfortunately suffered the same fate as Medicine for Melancholy and Night Catches Us, all three African-American-produced films that were promising hits on the festival circuits but basically never saw the light of a theater marquee. I'd like to think this is a coincidence and not indicative of something larger (although, Ballast, directed by a white man, did seem to have an easier path to theaters through IFC), but whatever the reason, my biggest disappointment is that these are distinctly American stories that most Americans will never see. Hollywood recycles dozens of films catering to white American audiences on a weekly basis (how many times have you seen a version of the upcoming No Strings Attached or the recent Rabbit Hole?), but when an original film like this one, or a film that at least tells a similar story in a different setting, studios flinch (nevermind that Precious won two Oscars and banked close to $50 million). Were Nina Simone still alive, she might sing her civil rights anthem to Hollywood.
Mississippi Damned is now available on DVD