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When the lights came up after the first screening of Ballast at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, an audible murmur of surprise rolled through the crowd upon the discovery that the soulful, moody movie they’d just seen about a black single mother and her teenage son eking out a meager existence in the Mississippi Delta was directed by a 41-year-old native Angeleno with an architecture degree (from USC) and a background as a Hollywood art director. That, and the fact that Lance Hammer is white.
Barack Obama notwithstanding, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that most white Americans don’t have a clue about the black experience in this country, particularly as it applies to the millions of blacks living in Third World poverty in inner cities and time-forgotten rural backwaters. Not that this stops the major movie studios from pandering to black and white moviegoers alike with slices of dime-store inspirationalism (usually rooted in the popular myth that the only ways out of the ghetto are through sports or rap), fear-mongering portraits of gang violence run amok, or glorified minstrel shows cast with the requisite assortment of hos, playas, low-riding gangstas and white-acting Uncle Toms. But with Ballast, Hammer avoids those potential pitfalls, as well as an even bigger one — that of the well-intentioned, socially responsible filmmaker who ennobles his poor, minority characters simply because they’re poor and minority. It is but one of the many remarkable qualities of Ballast that its characters possess their quiet, unassailable dignity from the start rather than having it revealed (or, worse, bestowed upon them) by the filmmaker.
“I have a very restless spirit,” says Hammer over coffee at the boutique Chamberlain Hotel in West Hollywood. “I like to move and I like to see things. I like to experience different cultures. I like to know that Los Angeles is not the center of the world.”
It was that wanderlust that first led Hammer to the Delta, which, with its “strange combination of beauty and sadness,” quickly seduced him. Like most of his answers to my questions, those words roll off Hammer’s tongue with a disarming, matter-of-fact sincerity that has the effect of making everything he says sound as though it were obvious. When I suggest that the impoverished Delta isn’t a destination to which most white Americans would willingly set their compass, Hammer seems downright perplexed. “I guess I assume that being an American, growing up in this country that perpetuated slavery, you would be very sensitive to that, especially if you’re white,” he says. “You would be aware that this is your country and this is what it has done, and the long fingers of that institution are still very present. It’s a significant problem, the kind of institutionalized poverty there. Americans, I think, are aware of that, aren’t they?”
As he explored the Delta region, Hammer took photographs, recorded sound and gradually began to work on a screenplay that he hoped would speak “indirectly about slavery, about this continual state of class hierarchy, this continued racism that exists, and this unique way of dealing with this racism.”
But after Hammer shot some scenes from the script he thought he wanted to make, with an eye toward securing the financing for the feature version, he was crushed by the results. “When I finally cut it together in a way that I could show people, I hated it,” he says of the aborted project. “I thought: What this is is a very enthusiastic person in love with a place trying to say everything they know about a place. So I said, ‘I have to start over.’ I’d learned so much about this place, and the biggest thing I’d learned is that I have no authority to speak about it. The more you learn about a place, the more you realize how little you know.”
Like any good architect, Hammer returned to the drawing board, determined this time “to speak only about the things I know, that are universals — grieving, the dignity of perseverance, hope” and “to be extremely collaborative. I needed the help of the people from this place to speak specifically about the experience of living in Mississippi.” Above all, says Hammer, “If there was going to be any issue of race discussed, it couldn’t come from me, or else it would be just another film about the Delta or civil rights or the blues, brought to you by some white director.”
With that in mind, Hammer spent several months on the ground in towns with names like Yazoo City, attending church services and otherwise ingratiating himself into the community. When the time seemed right, he would mention his film and the creative partnership he was seeking with the locals. It was thus that Hammer came to meet Michael J. Smith, the son of a Yazoo City pastor, who stars in Ballast as Lawrence, the solemn, towering figure who re-enters the lives of James (Jimmyron Ross) and James’ mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) following the death of his twin brother, who was James’ father. Together with his co-stars, Smith became, in Hammer’s words, one of the “authors” of the film, which was developed improvisationally in a manner reminiscent of Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes. “Because he was an author, he became very passionately involved in this thing he was authoring, and his family and his community became very supportive, and then the word spread,” Hammer says. “I think people started to understand that we were trying to make a document of accuracy, and we weren’t trying to make a statement about a place as outsiders.”
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