by Steven Boone
I suspect it was the story that had some of the folks in the Film Forum audience sighing, whispering and even snickering uncontrollably. Story-wise, Ballast can be easily mistaken for an entry in the Why We Be Black genre—films which depict underclass African-Americans scratching and surviving and tearing each other apart. Such films are said to exist mainly for the delectation of white liberals who like to think of poor blacks as lovable to the degree that they are irrational, impulsive and self-destructive. Mighty Joe Young in a do-rag. The fallacy of placing Ballast in this genre is as tragic as the critical backlash against Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple adaptation, which reduced that film’s towering humanism to Song of the South T-N-T.
The first time I saw Ballast, knowing nothing about its maker, I spent no more than a cumulative total of five minutes thinking about the race of its characters or creator. Whenever little Lawrence wielded a gun that weighed more than him; when early on, James sat brooding, an inscrutable black hulk; when Marlee fumed and fretted over a tragic turn of events with the all the negro histrionics of Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder — yeah, I thought about race. But that was it. Otherwise, the ethnicity of Marlee, James, and Lawrence rarely factored into my appreciation of their loss, desperation, insecurities, hopes and contradictions. These were Americans, these were human beings. I expect a white upper middle class author on a black working class subject to get some things “wrong”—that’s the way it is. What I hope for in such a film is an honest effort to capture something true.
[A note from RWK: Idiot me missed Lance Hammer's film when it played at the luxurious Sundance Cinema last week. Click here to see if/when it will be playing near you. Hopefully the film will find its way to my eyes and ears soon. With all the love Steve's given this film, it's hard not to kick myself in my butt. But, then again, I've been busy with other cine-stars I'm more than happy to have encountered.]