Monday, December 3, 2012


Insecurity, depression, dark thoughts & existentialism among black males dates all the way back to the 1930's with the films of Paul Robeson going all the way up til the 60's. But some time after films like; Nothing But A Man (1964), The Learning Tree (1969) & The Story Of A Three Day Pass (1968) came out, that genuine exploration in to the souls of black males took a back seat to the blaxploitation genre of the 70's (where black males were stoic, badass ghetto super heroes who didn't feel any kind of pain whatsoever) which ultimately set "black film" back so much that by the beginning of the 1980's there were virtually no "black films" (with the exception of The Education Of Sonny Carson or the films of Charles Burnett) until the emergence of Robert Townsend, Spike Lee, Mario Van Peeples and the rest of the gang in the mid-late 80’s. But even their early films (which were great) didn’t really get in to the groundbreaking subject matter that Gordon Parks & Melvin Van Peeples dealt with. Eventually things kinda changed by the early 90's when Wendell B. Harris & John Singleton gave us Chameleon Street & Boyz N' The Hood. I would have included the Hughes Brothers but according to them their artistic side comes from their Armenian side (yes, they said this) so I wouldn’t wanna include them in something like "black film" which is CLEARLY beneath them. Anyway, the Last decade also brought us other films like Ghost Dog (elements of that story do very much concern issues like racism & preconceived notions about black males), George Washington (specifically Eddie Rouss's character) and shit...even BABY BOY on some level, being the train wreck of a movie that it is, dealt with the kinda depression & insecurities that really only black males in America can really relate too. But in my opinion, Ballast (2008) might be the greatest film to date (or at least top 3) to deal with the subject of depression & sadness within black males (along with touching on the importance of family and the unspoken, spiritual bond between twins). In a role that could have easily been played a big, teddy-bearish actor like Forest Whitaker, first time/non-professional actor; Michael J. Smith Jr. took an incredibly challenging role and hit a home run with it (along with the rest of the cast). Director; Lance Hammer knew exactly what he was doing by casting the quiet, soft spoken, introverted, 6'3", 250-something pound framed Smith to play the lead role. Instead of casting someone like Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle or even Jeffrey Wright, he went with someone that most people may not think to empathize with due to their physical stature. Smith embodies a lot of the stereotypes that many (ignorant) people have towards someone with his features. You know - "The Big Scary Black Man". Besides his size (he looks more like a professional linebacker than he does an art house actor), at no point in the film does he really smile. For someone like myself who pretty much matches the physique of Smith, I applaud Hammer (or whoever did the casting for Ballast) for his casting choice. Black males, specifically large black males have a genuine sensitive side and sometimes it’s easy for people to not think about that. I imagine some of you are questioning why I didn’t bring up or include John Coffee from The Green Mile or the big mute stupid idiot from Batteries Not Included. Anyone with half a brain should know those aren’t realistic portrayals at all. The John Coffee character borders on not only being racist but downright idiotic. I mean, you really mean to tell me this person has magical powers to bring people back to life and cure the racist white people (who ultimately kill him) of diseases like cancer & the clap, yet he doesn’t have the power to just break out of his prison cell and walk right out? Smith's performance in Ballast is a response to bullshit like The Green Mile.
Ballast may not have dreamy voice-over (which is an easy route that Hammer coulda taken given the film's tone) but the use of natural sunlight and shots of the southern American landscapes are very reminiscent of Terrence Malick's early work...

When this film came out it was almost impossible for critics to not namedrop David Gordon Green's George Washington at least once in their reviews. The comparison is somewhat understandable at first glance as both films are natural, yet artistic looks at a predominantly black southern community through the eyes of a white male director using non-professional actors. But when you watch both films more than once you'll soon come to see that both films are totally different. Ballast centers on "Lawrence" (Michael J. Smith Jr.) - a former radio DJ and lonely store owner. His twin brother and only friend ("Darius") has just committed suicide. After an unsuccessful attempt at trying to commit suicide himself (he shoots himself but still lives), Lawrence sinks in to an understandable depression and tries to come to terms with the loss of his brother as well as mend the relationship with the family Darius left behind (a wife,"Marlee", and a crack addicted son, "James", that Lawrence isn’t exactly on speaking terms with at the moment for various reasons). Before Darius killed himself, he left both; Lawrence and his ex-wife some land and co-ownership of their father's gas station in what was probably an attempt to bring his family together in his absence. After a few fights and some personal issues are hashed out, Lawrence and Marlee slowly manage to work together and even end up living under the same roof. This becomes rough and disorienting for James as Lawrence, his uncle, looks exactly like his father (you know, being twin brothers and all) and he's having a tough time adjusting. Even Lawrence himself gets caught up in the fatherly role and has a hard time distinguishing himself from his deceased brother now that he's pretty much filled in for his position as a surrogate father & husband. It’s as if Darius came back to life in the form of his twin brother to look after everyone. Like many great films, Ballast plays off of that element of the unspoken. There isn’t a whole lot of dialogue and half of the dialogue that’s spoken is somewhat mumbled & unimportant while the important dialogue is spaced out quite a bit through the course of the film (without any kind of a score, minus the blowing of the wind, to keep the film together during all the quiet moments). In the end we get some insight as to why Darius killed himself and what separated his family. Some may find Ballast boring while others (like myself) consider it a sleeper masterpiece. If someone were to consider it just "ok" I really couldn’t argue with that. But for personal reasons that I already mentioned along with other reasons that are indescribable I can’t help but put Ballast on a mini pedestal as it represents something I haven’t really seen much on the big screen. And I haven’t seen too many films that touch on the real bond between twins in recent years (the opening of Ballast is very reminiscent of the final moments in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers). My only issue with Ballast is that I don’t think it needed the whole subplot about James being hooked on drugs. I think we've seen enough of the drug angle in films concerning black people done enough since the early 90's. Maybe it’s time to give it a rest. It's possible to make a film centered around black characters without the presence of crack. But that’s just a minor element of the film and it doesn’t really take over the story.

The south during the winter time is another unique element of Ballast as those two things aren't really synonymous with each other. Besides the unique lead casting choice, Lannce Hammer intentionally took one of the most notoriously hot & "southern" places in America (the Mississippi delta) and took us there during the winter instead of mid-august like most films set in the south tend to do.
Not since Isaiah Washington's performance in Clockers has the "angry frustrated black male" been dissected
 and looked at in such a sympathetic way. Ballast features the beautiful natural imagery reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s work (specifically Red Road & Wuthering Heights) as well as the films of Kelly Reichardt (specifically Old Joy). The opening shot and the scene with James lying on the floor with Lawrence’s dog (above) immediately come to mind. Somehow the camera used in this film makes the dark blue/grayish, drab environment seem beautiful. Along with 35 Shots Of Rum and The Wrestler (both released in the same year) Ballast is one of the best (recent) looks at the importance of having a father or some kind of a father figure. With the exception of one actor the entire cast is all black. Because of where we’re at as a society (or whatever) it’s almost impossible to not recognize this. However, race and/or racism isn’t the ISSUE of the film (thank god). For someone like myself who’s slowly starting to give up on films concerning race (people’s response to The Beast Of The Southern Wild, Tyler Perry, Precious and I honestly don’t understand why Spike Lee’s name is always mentioned in the same breath as Steve McQueen’s. Besides the color of their skin and both being filmmakers, they have nothing in common. Not even the same ethnic upbringing) Ballast is a breath of fresh air.


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