Review: ‘Lost in Mississippi’

Stream-of-consciousness docu about life on the fringes in Mississippi is always fascinating, but has many things on its plate other than its purported subject, a recent series of ill-explained suicides in state prisons. Public for this oddity would appear to be very limited.

Stream-of-consciousness docu about life on the fringes in Mississippi is always fascinating, but has many things on its plate other than its purported subject, a recent series of ill-explained suicides in state prisons. Public for this oddity would appear to be very limited.

Filmmaker Jim Chambers drives around the state talking to people and getting their stories. Early on, it’s cultural anthropology as we meet a cherubic 11 -year-old boy who claims he is a satanist and an elderly black man who describes the secret to a successful marriage.

Then Chambers shifts gears to focus on the case of Cedric Walker, a 21 -year-old black inmate at Parchman State Penitentiary who was six months away from parole when he was found hanged in his cell. Death was ruled a suicide, a verdict viewed with suspicion by Walker’s family. The skepticism is compounded by Andrea Gibbs, a teenage runaway-turned-cop-turned-whistle-blower who lost her police job when she revealed how some prisoners in a Mississippi jail had been beaten.

Chambers allows the film to meander. A visit to Parchman leads to interviews with various wardens and sheriffs as well as a debate on penology (rehabilitation vs. punishment) and a discussion about why poor young men might prefer selling drugs to flipping hamburgers. Other sections have nothing to do with Gibbs or the subject of jail-house suicides.

After a chat with an ex-con named Billy Dotson, one of whose pit bulls attacks a member of the film crew, Chambers is on the road again, this time to Camp Sister Spirit, a lesbian retreat that has been subject to repeated attack. In perhaps the film’s funniest moment, a “family values” critic of the camp asked to define the word “liberal” simply replies, “George Bush.” This is truly a different world.

More than a hard-hitting expose on prison suicides, “Lost in Mississippi” is a portrait of a state from the viewpoint of those on the peripheries of the dominant culture. Tech credits are fine, with mix of film clips, B&W footage and animation highlighting the stream-of-consciousness nature of the enterprise.

Lost in Mississippi

Production

A Field Hands Prods. LP presentation. Produced by Jim Chambers, Hal Hisey. Directed by Jim Chambers. Screenplay, Chambers, Nancy Baker.

Crew

Camera (color), Douglas Cooper, Tom Sigel; editors, Baker, Paula Heredia; music, Daniel Lanois; sound (UltraStereo), Alan Barker, Giovanni Disimone, Petur Hliddal, Dave McJunken, Roger Phenix, Pam Yates. Reviewed at Sony Theatres Copley Place, Boston, Sept. 18, 1996. (In Boston Film Festival.) Running time: 90 MIN.
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