The Mississippi Delta is an area of fertile soil, rich culture, and crushing poverty. It’s the kind of place that accentuates a person’s essential qualities, both for good and for ill. Many people give into drugs, despair, or rage. Others persevere, not out of any conscious nobility, but because it’s all they know to do.
“Ballast” is set in winter, when the Delta is wet and gray; it always seems that it’s just rained or is just about to. Here, on a flat, treeless piece of land, sit two little matching houses, in which live two big matching men. Darius and Lawrence Batiste are twins, 35 years old, who share a small inheritance from their father: this small piece of land, their two houses, and a nearby convenience store. Then, without warning, Darius is gone, dead by his own hand, leaving Lawrence adrift.
Marlee Sykes works for a cleaning service; when we first see her, she is scrubbing a urinal—reduced in circumstances by poverty, race, and gender. She and her son James live in a trailer park a few open fields away from Lawrence and Darius. With James, she is gentle and attentive, never short-tempered, no matter how tired. She saves the best part of herself for the little time she gets to spend with him. When she is able to save a little bit of money, he gets that too. James is 12 years old. Young enough to still watch cartoons, old enough to steal so he can buy crack.
James is Darius’ son, though they haven’t seen each other in a long time. But before he died, Darius wrote a letter leaving all his property to Marlee and James, and Lawrence dutifully delivers it. And now Lawrence and Marlee have to deal with each other, and with the empty space where Darius used to live.
“Ballast” is elegantly minimal. In the film’s first act, there’s almost no dialogue, and through to the end, no one ever says more than is absolutely necessary. The harshness of life in the Delta has hardened the characters, made them internalized and reticent. We meet them without exposition and gradually piece together how they’re connected. It’s a strikingly organic process, and one that calls upon the audience to be attentive and intuitive rather than just passively receive information. We come to know these people through the few things they say, but even more through the things they don’t say, and through their movements or refusals to take action.
What comes out of that is a set of characters that is complex and persuasively, idiosyncratically alive. Marlee, for instance, is unlike almost every other black mother I have seen in film. I kept waiting for her to yell at James, or smack him for backtalking, or assume a sassy hip-slung posture when making a point. But she’s not a Movie Negro; she’s a person, and she doesn’t do that s**t.
“Ballast” reminds us how phony and programmed most Hollywood products are, repudiating the condescension with which it so often treats poor people, especially if they’re black. Marlee and Lawrence are poor and uneducated, but they’re intelligent and, when they choose to speak, articulate, and are at all times presented with dignity and empathy.
The actors here are all nonprofessionals. (Micheal J. Smith Sr. plays Lawrence; Tarra Riggs plays Marlee; JimMyron Ross plays James.) Most had never acted before. The writer/director, Lance Hammer, found them by spending time in the Delta, visiting black churches and walking through towns, introducing himself to people and explaining that he wanted to make a film about life in the Delta and needed their help. He asked them about their lives and how they saw their world. To research James’ story, he spoke to narcotics agents and to crack dealers to find out how they lived and how they talked.
Hammer wrote a script but never showed it to the cast, insisting that the words they spoke must be their own. They rehearsed for three months to generate scenes that were true to their own experiences of life in the Delta. What they produced is something that is true not just to this place or to these people’s lives, or to the lives of poor people or black people, but to the experience of being human.