Directed by Lance Hammer
at Film Forum
Running Time: 96 min.
“I’m so sick of this shit!” sobs Ballast’s woebegone,
downtrodden black single parent, a mother who loses her job scrubbing urinals
after drug dealers beat her. Her exasperation is a point well taken. Ballast (another
Frozen River, wallowing in the miseries of the underclass) is designed to
provoke bourgeois moviegoers’ pity.
Director-writer Lance Hammer shows a black Mississippi
family torn apart by a double suicide attempt, drugs and alienation. But you
have to see through these ludicrous black phantoms to the actual white
middle-class fantasies at the film’s core. That’s why the New York Times has
raved: “A startlingly pitch-perfect first feature.” Why Newsweek cheers “Hammer
[explores] underclass African-American lives with grit, honesty and eyes wide
open to life as it is actually lived, not as the movies have conditioned us to
see it.” Fact is, Ballast demonstrates exactly how movies condition knee-jerk
responses to black pathology. That’s why Film Comment calls it “Beautiful.”
Hammer’s style reveals the relationships and backgrounds
piecemeal. Each character is overly taciturn: Mournful adult Lawrence (Michael
J. Smith Sr.) routinely says, “I don’t care.” Mother Marlee (Tara Riggs)
routinely sighs, “Maybe we can figure it out.” And the unreachable, TV-addicted
drug dealer kid (Jim Myron Ross) aims a gun to bluff courage. If not for
Hammer’s neo-realist gimmick, Ballast is conventional storytelling but without
the pleasures and richness of conventional storytelling as seen in David Lean
or Chen Kaige’s Together.
Problem is, Ballast’s totally humorless family saga won’t
appeal to the Hollywoodized black audience—they want drama! It’s simply another
calling-card movie establishing the director’s credentials. Naturally, it turns
into an ode to commerce: Lawrence, Marlee and the kid unite and run a
convenience store. It’s a Fannie Hurst tale (like Imitation of Life, So Big,
Showboat) told backward and full of darkened faces that don’t catch the light.
(Only when the family members become merchants and go from disenfranchisement
to empowerment do we see Lawrence’s handsomeness and Marlee’s resemblance to
Kaycee Moore in Killer of Sheep.)
This shit has been going on since Reagan (Straight Out of
Brooklyn) and Clinton (Fresh). African-American life is imprisoned by the art
fallacies of Indie filmmaking, controlled by white liberal condescension. Even
Barack Obama would be sick of it.