Mississippi Damned -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

CHICAGO -- It seems that most movies set in Mississippi are related to the Civil Rights movement. This raw and powerful film centers on the desperate downward spiral of a rural black town in the mid-'80s.

The winner of the Gold Hugo for best film in competition at the Chicago International Film Festival, "Mississippi Damned" is an unsparing insight into self-destructive patterns and malaise: alcoholism, welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, unemployment and spousal abuse all roil in this powerful entrant. Plaudits to filmmaker Tina Mabry for her tightly wound and powerfully explosive story.

With no sugarcoating or soap-boxing, filmmaker Mabry has distilled a wide-ranging snapshot of the hardships and turmoil that do not come to life in dry sociology papers or political oratory about black poverty in the U.S.

Although specific to Mississippi rural blacks, the challenges and self-perpetuating dysfunctional behavior could be generally transposed to other poverty-bound groups.

Mabry's tightly crafted script reveals and unravels the lives of many characters but never resorts to sentimentality or easy outcomes. It's an incendiary story, told with a firm heart and a supple hand.

"Mississippi" has mesmerizing ensemble performances that spring to life through its talented performers. Jossie Harris Thacker is heart-wrenching as an alcoholic, and Malcolm David Kelley is compelling as a local basketball star who soars to the NBA only to fall back deeper into the sinkhole of his youth.

Kylee Russell is charismatic as a talented musician who dreams of bigger things, and Chastity Hammite is sympathetic as a teen mercilessly put down because of her homosexuality.

The technical contributions in this tightly forged film are exemplary. In particular, Ryan Adison Amen's score wails with juke-joint flavor, conveying the tumult and desperation of this down-spiraling town. Similarly, cinematographer Bradford Young's tight framings and unblinking compositions bring sharp focus on this calamitous community.

Venue: Chicago International Film Festival

Production: Morgan's Mark
Cast: Malcolm Goodwin, Malcolm, David Kelley, Kylee Russell, Chastity Hemmite, Jossie Harris Thacker, Tessa Thompson, Simbi Kali Williams, D.B. Woodside
Director/screenwriter: Tina Mabry
Producers: Morgan R. Stiff, Lee V. Stiff
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Production designer: Alyana Trotte
Music: Ryan Adison Amen
Costume designer: Catherine Bayley
Editor: Morgan Stiff
No rating, 120 minutes