“Mississippi Damned”, Tina Mabry’s scorching 2009 film that was denied distribution but has been streaming on Netflix since last fall, would seem to take its name from Nina Simone’s anthem of the sixties, “Mississippi God Damn.” But then, that was a protest song, an exclamation, reacting against something else, calling out with a righteous anger, whereas “Mississippi Damned” is more suggestive of a cause and effect, of the roots of Mississippi heritage being cursed, of how the people born into the families Mabry’s film chronicles are cursed right from the get-go, bound to a terrible ancestral burden whether they like it or not.
Split into two sections, the first takes place in 1986, opening in the midst of a house party progress, one swathed in the tempestuous kinda red akin to back alley blues clubs, like Theo’s Place in “Cookie’s Fortune” but without as much goodwill. It’s deliberately difficult in the film’s beginning passages to get hold of who’s who, mirroring the sprawling nature of this family, the way they interconnect and collide and then bounce off one another. There are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, all saddled with various problems ranging from alcoholism to miscarried pregnancies. Several of the men are portrayed as unreliable and unlovable, incapable of merely holding down a job and violently domineering, yet the women struggle too. No one is spared here, everyone is saddled with problems, and those problems threaten the entire time to be passed directly down to the children. And it is the children on whom Mabry focuses as the narrative gradually builds steam.
Leigh (Chasity Kershal Hammitte), a closeted lesbian, dreams of lighting out for the big city with Paula (Jasmine Burke) while Sammy (Malcolm David Kelley), Leigh’s cousin, is a skilled basketball player, one who might just go to college and on to the pros, if only he score the necessary cash to get to a place where recruiters can see him. The former’s dreams die quickly as Paula is pressured into conforming into a more traditional female/male relationship while Sammy endures mental, physical and sexual abuse. As he does, it’s virtually impossible not to feel empathy, as he nonetheless tries to subsist, like in the moment when he takes cash from his mother’s boyfriend’s wallet, using it to buy the whole family groceries, before he’s kicked and bullied. You root for him to get out, but the physical and sexual abuse takes its toll, and as the 1986 passages end, he does something so reprehensible in contrast to his seeming innate nature that it’s jaw-dropping.
The film then flashes ahead 12 years where we learn Leigh is still stuck in the same place and is still hung up on the same girl. Sammy (played by Malcolm Goodwin as an adult) did break out, going pro, but then he got injured, and now he’s back, trying to just hang on with a wife and son in tow even as the weight of his past threatens to suffocate him. And as this happens, the narrative shifts to Kari (Tessa Thompson), Leigh’s sister and Sammy’s cousin. A piano prodigy she is hoping to be accepted to NYU, but the thorny issue of money and its often direct ties to family obligations threaten to derail her dreams and leave her smoldering in the hometown ruins alongside her sister and cousin.
An aunt sits down and gives Kari a speech about how she’s the one who needs to get out and do what the rest couldn’t do, which in such a morose context plays less like a issuance of hope than further pressure. No twenty-year old should be saddled with such expectations, and yet Thompson’s performance, with stakes out a moving middle ground between fury at the myriad of issues weighing her down and a benevolence in the face of so many obstacles that builds her back up, makes you believe that her character can handle such pressure.
It also fuels the dramatic consequences, imposing a sense of now or never, though without, thankfully, ever turning maudlin or melodramatic. There is a late film shot in the arm to Kari’s plight that in another film simply could have been a matter of story convenience; in “Mississippi Damned”, however, it plays like something far-reaching, an excusing of the burden we fear Kari will never be rid, releasing her of history’s tentacles. The end is not an escape; it’s an absolution.