It was the business of the summer’s Los Angeles Film Festival to offer an eagle-eyed view of American culture and politics. Some of the festival’s best faire worked as a kind of “sociometer,” casting a gaze of conscience on various corners of a country riddled with contradictions in the face of historic divides and avid campaigns as volatile as the stock market. Sean Baker’s Prince of Broadway, which won the prize for Best Narrative Feature, invested the immigrant’s beleaguered chase after the American dream in the pint-sized performance of a talented and heart-tugging toddler. If this comedy, albeit guerrilla-style, strutted the sunny side of the street, America’s core values and practices were given a good shaking in other films: American Son, Neil Abramson’s spotlight on race, class, and love on the night before “shipping out” to Iraq; Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy, a breezy-bike-ride valentine to San Francisco with a smack in the face for its divisive “whitening” through gentrification; Stefan Forbes’ Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, a provocative poke at the “blues” in American politics; and Lance Hammer’s Ballast, a piercing drama that puts a face on the longstanding hardship in today’s Mississippi Delta. In this space I will focus on the latter two films, the first documentary and the second poetic, but strangely part and parcel of each other in their peculiarly American dilemmas.
It required a natural-born trickster to wave a wand over the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan White House and then engineer, through a slickly self-labeled “values-based” media campaign, the election of George H. W. Bush to the Presidency in 1988. Lee Atwater was that man, taking his cues from the Nixon gang, cutting his teeth as an organizer for College Republicans, and then coming into his own as aide for Strom Thurmond, the infamously racist Senator from Atwater’s own South Carolina. Ironically a self-avowed aficionado of African American culture, Lee Atwater loved the blues and played the music himself, hanging out with James Brown and B.B. King, as seen in the archival footage and interviews the film uses with striking effect. Yet within moments the film’s clips also shore up the race-baiting machinations of Atwater as he mentored Karl Rove and George W. Bush in the smear-campaign tactics that became standard operating procedure throughout the reign of the Bush dynasty and continue to parade themselves in minstrel-like masquerade through today’s Presidential race. (After all, the flip-side of the white minstrel’s song-and-dance entertainment in blackface was the spectacle of black lynching by the white-hooded KKK, playing to the same audience.)
Interviews with Governor Michael Dukakis and his wife, Kitty, show how the crafting and dissemination of the Willie Horton ad shut down Dukakis’ candidacy for President in 1988 and paved the way for the Swift Boat-ing of John Kerry in 2004. Whether the fuel that Atwater fed the press was any more false than the whole new game of politics-by-consultant that he mastered and taught is beside the point, considering how insidiously ingenious is this Boogie Man who brought the blues to millennial America. Shot with an intimate hand-held camera and also scored and edited by director Stefan Forbes, the film assembles a “Greek chorus” of Atwater’s own friends and acquaintances, complete with the (anti-)hero’s repentance on his death bed, and lets the audience construct its own narrative from this personal testimony. One way or another, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story shows that the ghost haunts us still.
Lance Hammer’s Ballast begins with a man found dead in his bed. A boy, James, breaks into the house and pulls a gun on another man, Lawrence, who is oblivious, sitting on his couch in an emotional coma. When James leaves with what he wants, a shot is heard from inside. Soon thereafter, a woman, Marlee, is told the news. It sounds like a slam-bang melodrama, but it’s not. Ballast hangs in the air like a gray cloud that, over time, becomes translucent. Quiet like a Bergman film and spare like an Ibsen play, Ballast is about what happened long ago, and now, in sobering circumstances, three people are left to make their way through the aftermath. The expanse of the Mississippi flatlands under winter skies serves as both a foil for reflection and a window through which writer-director Lance Hammer achieves something few American filmmakers take on today, and that is to use cinema as a vibrant and resonant conductor of tone. Ballast shows us the labors of sorrow, but also of redemption and resilience. Marlee, a single mother, may not know it, but on reserve she holds the inner resources of a Phoenix Jackson out of a Eudora Welty short story. Yet her twelve-year-old James, left too long to his own devices, has developed a hard edge, and he brings Marlee down, as if her long hours of menial and low-paid labor didn’t already deplete her. It’s the child left in James, by nature curious and open-hearted, that compels him to peel away the mysteries of his past and the precise ways in which Marlee is connected, despite herself, to Lawrence.
Much as Ballast is about possibility, it aptly uses a form, style, and method open to the possibilities of language itself, given that life always exceeds the words or images used to deliver its meaning. Understanding this, Hammer allowed his scenario to find itself during the two months of rehearsals he held with his actors, generally not professionals but residents of the Delta townships. Their dialogue emerged from these exchanges. Lol Crawley shot the film in 35 mm using only existing locations and available light. Ballast was the first feature for Hammer as writer-director and also for Crawley as director of photography, and is as good a reason as any for the two to continue their exploration of language along this path. With virtually no music but a pitch-perfect balance of word and image, Hammer edits the work of exceptional actors and a gifted cinematographer with formidable results.