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Janelle Tapscott

Janelle Tapscott
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Salon.com
NOVEMBER 17, 2009 11:58AM

Poverty of Spirit: A Study in Historical Contrasts

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James, a poor black teen (maybe 14), lives in the Mississippi Delta.  His mom, Marlee, cleans toilets for a living.  The opening scene of this first time movie for director, Lance Hammer, shows James in a large field, as if on the ocean, chasing hundreds of geese up into the skies. Then, a white man knocks on the door of a house to inquire about Darius.   Calling in through the door, he states that people are concerned because the store’s been closed.  Instead of Darius, the man finds Lawrence, a large black man sitting stone silent on a couch.  A stench prompts the white man to walk past Lawrence into a bedroom where another black man is lying on a bed, clearly dead.  Thus begins a story of modern Southern poverty; a story which incorporates drugs, malaise, guns, theft, and love. This film is not a pretty film, but it is a story of survival.  The title, Ballast, seems to refer to the counterbalancing that various characters provide to keep one another going forward and not sinking, like Darius.  Darius, as it turns out, was James’ father, Marlee’s ex-husband, and Lawrence’s twin brother.  His suicide forces a rearrangement of the weight in this ship of life, this ship carrying these people. Any weight that could destabilize them all must be removed.    Other weight, such as the white man who befriends Lawrence, offers a counterbalance to Lawrence’s sense of isolation and betrayal after his brother, Darius commits suicide.  James provides the counterbalance that keeps his mother off drugs allowing her to fight for a chance for her son’s future.  Lawrence ultimately is the bulk that affords the tentative stability for them all to begin anew.

Ballast was nominated in several categories of the Independent Spirit Awards.  I became interested because the teenage boy who plays James (JimMyron Ross) was highlighted in the local newspaper as he attends a nearby high school.  While this is not a “feel good” film, it is a story worth seeing.

We saw another view of poverty this last weekend when we visited Tupelo, Mississippi and the birth home of Elvis Presley.  People who are Elvis fans know that he was born during the Depression; that his dad was a sharecropper; and that he was a twin but the first-born twin (Jessie) was still-born.   I knew these facts about Elvis, but the reality of his early years gob-smacked me right between the eyes.  I invite you to get out your tape measure and some masking tape.  Mark off a 15 feet by 30 feet rectangle.  That was the size of the building the Presley’s called home.  Two rooms, a bedroom as the first room and the kitchen as the second, in shotgun style, were all the structure contained.  With no running water, no indoor toilet, and heated by wood stoves, they originally papered the walls with newspaper to keep the wind from whistling in through the clapboard sides.  (Now it’s wallpapered with a floral print from the time period.)  After three years, Vernon Presley couldn’t keep up with the payments on the $180 he had borrowed to have the home built, so when Elvis was 3 years old the family moved next door to live with relatives in a home similar in size to their former home.  When he was 15 the family moved to Memphis, where they continued in poverty living in a public housing project (one of the first in the nation).  Of course, the rest of the story is common knowledge even for those who aren’t Elvis fans.

Look at the two views of poverty.  They are different yes, in that they spring from different eras which essentially created different cultures with different cultural thought processes.   Economic disparity in the earlier culture wasn’t so glaring. Perhaps a question might be asked when comparing these two eras—With all the material possessions we have now (even the boy in the movie, James, had a Nintendo) are we (not Mississippians—but all of us) really suffering from a poverty of the spirit?  Because after Elvis acquired millions of dollars and worldwide fame, he may have been poorer than he was at birth.  

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Not sure that Elvis' later drug use evinces an impoverished spirit.

Also, while the deep south may seem poverty-stricken, especially to someone coming from Seattle, compared to sub-Saharan Africa, or most of Asia the south would be considered wealthy.

But, it does still have a long way to got to catch up to other regions of the U.S.