For the black men, women and children in “Mississippi Damned,” Tina Mabry’s autobiographical saga of intertwined destinies, that southern state epitomizes a domestic hell of borderline poverty and endemic abuse. Complex family trees sometimes make for tough narrative sledding, but the thicket of obligations, traumas and betrayals that entrap the “damned” here are well worth any momentary confusion. Mabry brilliantly captures a community as organic as it is dead-end, and the tortured legacy behind simplistic notions of ever escaping it. The NewFest audience award-winner demands strong critical support to overcome its downbeat subject matter and lack of a star draw.
The pic opens in 1986, as the three sisters (Simi Kali Williams, Michael Hyatt and Jossie Harris Thacker) who comprise the core of the film’s matriarchal clan are struggling with alcoholism, murder, childlessness and cancer. The women constitute the society’s main source of economic and emotional stability, with the men mostly absent or unemployed.
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For the children, already longtime victims of violence or neglect, the roads out of this cycle of poverty and frequent joblessness are limited, costly and stereotypical: basketball for high school athlete Sammy (Malcolm David Kelly) and music for his much younger cousin Kari (Kylee Russell). For Kari’s older sister Leigh (Chastity Hammite), who is madly in love with her g.f. and carries the torch long after she’s been dumped for the class hunk, leaving is not an option.
The film then jumps ahead 12 years to 1998. Leigh is still hopelessly fixated on her now-married ex. A grown-up Sammy (Malcolm Goodwin), his NBA career cut short, has come back to town with wife and son, unable to reconcile his past fame with his future minimum-wage obscurity. And an adult Kari (Tessa Thompson) has postponed college and career to tend to others’ needs.
Closer in tone — with its raucous inhouse poker games and incestuous family secrets — to Kasi Lemmons’ “Eve’s Bayou” than to the stark minimalism of Lance Hammer’s Mississippi-set “Ballast,” Mabry’s magnificently thesped film proudly inserts itself into the despised genre of melodrama (albeit without the operatic exoticism that spiced up Lemmons’ Louisiana). Mabry’s world is far more claustrophobic, its natural surroundings incidental to the great indoors. Even the town feels constricted — a dubious extension of the family at best, a stage for exploitation and humiliation at worst.
Editor Morgan Stiff weaves a readable continuum through the maze of characters, and successfully stitches over the 12-year time-leap. Lenser Bradford Young, shooting in Super 35, infuses the frame with such palpable weight that characters seem physically embedded in their backgrounds. One gets the feeling that the family, constantly menaced with eviction, would disintegrate entirely outside the walls that form both haven and prison.