There's a quiet anger informing "LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton," but the docu by Susan Froemke, Deborah Dickson and Albert Maysles adheres to the rigorous and sober-minded Maysles brothers' tradition of presenting things as they are, without editorializing.
There’s a quiet anger informing “LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton,” but the docu by Susan Froemke, Deborah Dickson and Albert Maysles adheres to the rigorous and sober-minded Maysles brothers’ tradition of presenting things as they are, without editorializing. The balance between feeling and distance is never a contradiction here but, rather, the dynamic that makes this film an especially humanistic entry in the Maysles canon. Froemke and Dickson, long associated with Albert Maysles, show every sign that the master’s cinema verite style is in secure hands. After an exclusive window on HBO after Sundance, the account of an African-American family in the Mississippi Delta trying to better itself amid grinding poverty will find ready small-screen viewers around the world.
Part of docu’s strength and fascination is its willingness to show the poorest side of the world’s richest country, though “LaLee’s Kin” is hardly the first docu to do so (most recently, the nonfiction feature “Homeland,” recorded nearly identical conditions on the Lakota reservation in South Dakota).
Laura Lee (LaLee) Wallace’s life is a case of bitter memories of growing up as a virtual slave in the cotton fields and a troubling present in which she must care for grandkids and great-grandkids neglected by her seemingly incapable daughters. But LaLee and her kin, the film makes clear, are the victims of the Tallahatchie County economy, which is ruled by cotton and cotton owners; the workers have been kept in illiterate servitude.
Bearing a huge brunt of the legacy of cotton is the county school district’s superintendent, Reggie Barnes, who explains that in the old days, schools shut down during harvest time. He is faced with the seemingly impossible challenge of raising the annual standardized test scores across the district to a level that will take the district off the state’s probation list. One more year of failing test scores and the state will take over the district — a sure disaster, in Reggie’s determined mind.
The film alternates between Reggie’s campaign for excellence and LaLee’s struggles as she barely manages with a warren of kids. Among them are granddaughter Cassandra (known as “Granny”) and Lalee’s eldest surviving son, Eddie Reed, who’s in and out of prison. While there is never the slightest hint of the filmmakers fashioning a story of triumph over impossible odds — Maysles-trained filmmakers fashion nothing — small victories nevertheless take place: The local schools raise their test scores barely enough to escape probation, and Granny moves into a better situation in Memphis, with dreams of college and boys.
In a way that recalls such Maysles masterpieces as “Salesman” and “Grey Gardens,” Froemke and crew earn the complete trust of LaLee, who opens up her loving, heavy heart for the cameras. Gary Lucas’ Delta blues guitar music adds vivid color to this report from America’s forgotten underbelly.