In Ballast (2008; dir. Lance Hammer) a small group of African Americans in the rural Mississippi delta react to an unexpected suicide. To one character the dead man was a brother and business partner, for another he was an ex-husband, for a third he was a father. The film has a documentary quality. The actors are not professionals, and their acting style is flat, emotionless, and repressed, as if they have been encouraged to underplay their roles. The film title alludes metaphorically (I am guessing) to the heavy emotional and personal baggage these characters carry. Certainly one point of the film is to show that life for African Americans in the rural South is as difficult as it would be in big cities. Some problems from big cities have infiltrated their lives. The boy James (JimMyron Ross) is flirting with crime and drug use—he steals his Uncle Lawrence’s pistol and repeatedly robs him at gunpoint. He keeps a motor bike hidden in the bushes near the house where he lives with his mother—did he steal it, does she know he has it? When James cannot pay back a small debt he owes two local drug dealers, and then shoots at them with his pistol, they run the car his mother is driving off the road, drag him from the car, and beat him.
Depression is a major issue for both Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) and his dead brother’s ex-wife Marlee (Tarra Riggs). Lawrence tries to kill himself after his brother dies, and Marlee loses her job when she misses work to take care of problems involving her son James. But the main problem these characters confront is not related to race or economic status—it is the death of an individual who was important in their lives.
The film focuses a lot of James. On the one hand he plays the loving son to his mother, and she has no idea at first of the life he is leading outside their home. On the other he is increasingly veering towards crime and self-destructive behavior. The opening scene of the film in which James frightens a large flock of birds into flight and then stands in awe as they swoop and circle in the sky above him reminds me of the use that David Gordon Greene makes of his characters in the 2000 film George Washington. However, Greene may have had less interest in the social and economic contexts of his characters’ lives than writer and director Lance Hammer has in his characters—James is not an integer in an art drama. Hammer instead portrays him as a young man whose life is in danger and on the verge of careening in any number of directions. At the film’s beginning, with his mother frequently absent from their home because of work, and his father’s death, James clearly seems headed towards the same adolescent fates of lawlessness and dissolution that many other adolescents like him have suffered.
James’ situation may be the factor that ultimately draws Lawrence and Marlee together in an uneasy alliance. (Hammer told an interviewer that the film is “about a child being saved .”[i]) The film reveals little about their lives prior to the film, but we do know that Marlee had filed a restraining order against her ex-husband before his suicide. She can barely stand to talk to Lawrence, whom she blames along with her dead ex-husband for her miserable life (in which she includes her son James). Gradually they begin to recognize the importance of working together to address all the problems they are encountering.
I find Lawrence the most interesting character in the film. He is so affected by grief and depression after his brother’s death than he can barely move. He tries to kill himself. A white neighbor tries to help him and rouse him from his depression. (This is the only white character in the film, and he appears in only a few scenes). Lawrence allows his nephew to rob him without resisting, yet at the same time speaks with the boy in a restrained but friendly manner. Nothing seems to matter to him: he stops working at the store that he and his brother operated and sits at home on his sofa watching television or staring blankly out the window. When Marlee moves into one of the houses he and his brother owned, he can barely respond to her threats to sell the houses and the store from under him.
There are numerous complications in the characters of this film. It is difficult to pigeonhole them. Lawrence, for example, seems to be intelligent and fairly well educated. He explains to his nephew how twin brothers are conceived, and how they are genetically identical yet become separate individuals. The fact that he is a genetic match to his dead brother is a point he emphasizes several times in the film. He and Marlee decide to work together to home school James. Finally he agrees to work with her in running the store. On occasion the film clearly moves into exaggerated melodrama, but mostly the complications serve to make these characters and their lives real. An example is the conflicting motives that drive Lawrence towards a partnership with Marlee. He doesn’t want to lose the houses and the business that provide him with a livelihood (although he tells Marlee that the idea doesn’t bother him). He seems to feel genuine concern about his nephew’s welfare. He also is attracted to Marlee and seems to feel that he can step into his dead brother’s shoes in more ways than one (when Marlee realizes he believes this, she is enraged). Through all these complications these characters have to make their way.
There is no happy resolution to the problems these characters face. But there is no unhappy resolution either. Late in the film Lawrence discovers that James has stolen the ammunition of the gun with which he tried to kill himself once before, and which he seems to be ready to use again for the same purpose. But he discovers that James has dumped the ammunition in a ditch in a field—the film doesn’t make clear why, but one reason may be that the boy did not want his uncle to use those bullets to kill himself. That is, James shows his need for his uncle, and his mother, by doing away with the bullets that could have ended the uneasy alliance they have managed to build.
The setting of the film reflects the depressed, difficult lives of these characters. The weather is mostly cloudy, is often rainy, and colors as a result are muted and washed out. Characters live in cinder block houses or trailers and drive beaten up old cars. The store that Lawrence and Marlee run together is so realistic in its appearance that one suspects it actually exists.
The issues this film explores are not, finally, issues of race. They are fundamental human issues that everyone must face, sooner or later: grief, loss, isolation, depression, confusion, purposelessness. It is only incidental, in this sense, that the characters in Ballast are African American. However, their race and the economic and cultural conditions of their lives clearly do determine, complicate, and constrain how they deal with these challenges.
Ballast premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, where it won awards for Best Director and Best Cinematography. It was picked up for distribution by the Independent Film Channel. Hammer later took back the film to distribute on his own.
See the Roger Ebert review: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081029/REVIEWS/810309995