Mississippi Damned is a rare, exceptional film, one that covers enormous amounts of emotional territory and manages to impart sadness and hope in equal measures.
Written and directed by Tina Mabry, who penned the hilarious Itty Bitty Titty Committee, the movie dives deep into the heart of the American south, with an unflinching eye towards racism and poverty. Based on true events, the drama is achingly, refreshingly real.
The film kicks off in 1986, and centers on the lives of two African American families and their closest friends, barely scraping by in a rural Mississippi town.
Our protagonist, Kari (played as a young girl by Kylee Russell and later by Tessa Thompson), who acts as our eyes and ears throughout the film.
She has a lesbian sister, Leigh (Chasity Kershal Hammitte), and a cousin Sammy (Malcolm David Kelley), who is a young basketball star.
Their parents and close friends are all struggling — with money, with addictions, with violent histories and difficult pasts.
Charlie (Jossie Thacker) is an alcoholic living with a man who sleeps around on her. Anna (Simbi Kali Williams) is pregnant and near saintly, keeping watch over Kari and feeding her when there’s no food in the house. She’s married to an abusive guy who doesn’t work, forcing her to take care of business.
Kari and Leigh’s folks scream at Leigh about her sexuality and constantly argue about money — their father Junior (Adam Clark) is a gambling addict.
Finally, Sammy is a promising young athlete looking at the possibility of a major scholarship and a pro career, but he’s forced to perform sex acts for money just to go on team trips.
There’s enough drama to fill about six seasons of General Hospital, with the tacking of such issues as rape, child abuse, domestic violence, illness, death, imprisonment, child molestation, addiction, mental illness and abandonment.
With that much weight — combined with the additional heaviness that comes with any examination of poverty — one would think that the film would crash under it’s own gravitas. But carried by strong performances and assured direction, Mississippi Damned flows very well.
The acting is excellent across the board, with exceptional turns from Thompson, Thacker, Williams and Kelley.
Drawing from the sharply written script, Thompson imbues Kari with such strength and spirit that it becomes impossible not to root for her, while Kelley does an excellent job playing a troubled young man on the edge of a very slippery slope. Thacker and Williams have meaty roles in the troubled Charlie and long-suffering Anna; and each and every cast member down to the bit parts is spot-on.
As the film goes on and the time period shifts to the late 1990s, the children grow older and begin to repeat the mistakes their parents have made — sometimes they make entirely new ones. The older generation struggles with all their former problems, with illness and age wearing them further.
It’s depressing, sure, but Kari somehow stays determined to grow into something more. She aspires to go to college and become a professional musician, even after she suffers from sexual violence at a young age and constant financial pressure to stay and help support her family.