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"I'M SO SICK of this shit!" sobs Ballast's woebegone, downtrodden black single parent, a mother who loses her job scrubbing urinals after drug dealers beat her. Her exasperation is a point well taken. Ballast (another Frozen River, wallowing in the miseries of the underclass) is designed to provoke bourgeois moviegoers' pity. Director-writer Lance Hammer shows a black Mississippi family torn apart by a double suicide attempt, drugs and alienation. But you have to see through these ludicrous black phantoms to the actual white middle-class fantasies at the film's core. That's why the New York Times has raved: "A startlingly pitch-perfect first feature." Why Newsweek cheers "Hammer [explores] underclass African-American lives with grit, honesty and eyes wide open to life as it is actually lived, not as the movies have conditioned us to see it." Fact is, Ballast demonstrates exactly how movies condition knee-jerk responses to black pathology. That's why Film Comment calls it "Beautiful." Hammer's style reveals the relationships and backgrounds piecemeal. Each character is overly taciturn: Mournful adult Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.) routinely says, "I don't care." Mother Marlee (Tara Riggs) routinely sighs, "Maybe we can figure it out." And the unreachable, TV-addicted drug dealer kid (JimMyron Ross) aims a gun to bluff courage. If not for Hammer's neo-realist gimmick, Ballast is conventional storytelling but without the pleasures and richness of conventional storytelling as seen in David Lean or Chen Kaige's Together. Problem is, Ballast's totally humorless family saga won't appeal to the Hollywoodized black audience-they want drama! It's simply another calling-card movie establishing the director's credentials. Naturally, it turns into an ode to commerce: Lawrence, Marlee and the kid unite and run a convenience store. It's a Fannie Hurst tale (like Imitation of Life, So Big, Showboat) told backward and full of darkened faces that don't catch the light. (Only when the family members become merchants and go from disenfranchisement to empowerment do we see Lawrence's handsomeness and Marlee's resemblance to Kaycee Moore in Killer of Sheep.) This stuff has been going on since Reagan (Straight Out of Brooklyn) and Clinton (Fresh). African-American life is imprisoned by the art fallacies of Indie filmmaking, controlled by white liberal condescension. Even Barack Obama would be sick of it. -- Ballast Directed by Lance Hammer, at Film Forum, Running Time: 96 min. --

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