Taking place in 1986 and 1998 and based on a true story, three poor black kids in rural Mississippi reap the consequences of their family’s cycle of abuse, addiction, and violence. They independently struggle to escape their circumstances and must decide whether to confront what’s plagued their family for generations or succumb to the same crippling fate, forever damned in Mississippi. Writer/director Tina Mabry captures growing up in a world where possibilities and opportunities seem to die in the face of the suffocating reality of physical and sexual abuse, obsession, and a myriad of destructive compulsions.
In 1986 teenage cousins Leigh and Sammy, and Leigh's younger sister Kari, watch as their mothers and aunts struggle to maintain a roof over their heads. Leigh, a closeted lesbian, is devastated when her girlfriend announces she is marrying a man. Leigh attacks him and is arrested and kicked out of her parents' house. Sammy, a talented basketball player, is sexually abused by an older man. He accepts pay for sexual acts in order to get the money he needs to support his burgeoning basketball career. After Sammy's mother stabs her boyfriend's lover and is arrested, Sammy is taken in by his aunt. He rapes his younger cousin Kari, Leigh's sister.
By 1998 the three characters are adults. Leigh is still hung up on her old girlfriend and continues to visit her. Sammy, a former professional basketball player, is out of work due to an injury. His pride and previous fame make him reluctant to take the minimum wage job he needs to support his wife and child. Kari, a talented pianist who has delayed college for years to take care of her cancer-stricken mother, is waiting to hear if she has been accepted by a musical conservatory. As she struggles to save money for school, she feels bound by family and friends, most of whom have no money to lend her or are financially dependent on her.
She eventually turns to Sammy for money. Although he gives it to her, she is disgusted and ashamed for having asked him. Sammy, feeling impotent, begins to seduce his son's underage teenage babysitter. When he is caught by his wife, she contacts the police. He commits suicide.
Kari eventually learns that her mother's cancer has returned and her father has been laid off work. She gives her parents Sammy's money and decides not to go to school. When she tells her aunt of her decision, her aunt urges her to go, warning her that if she does not leave now she is unlikely to ever go. Kari learns that she has been accepted to school in New York. Shortly after, she discovers that her aunt has died, leaving her $25,000 in life insurance for school. Kari realizes that her aunt committed suicide by ceasing to take her diabetic medication. Kari packs up her things and leaves Mississippi, heading north toward school.Tonea Stewart as AliceAdam Clark as Junior PetersonMichael Hyatt as Delores PetersonChasity Kershal Hammitte as Leigh PetersonKylee Russell as Young Kari PetersonTessa Thompson as Kari PetersonJossie Thacker as Charlie StoneMalcolm David Kelley as Young SammyMalcolm Goodwin as Sammy StoneCynthia Addai-Robinson as Milena StoneSimbi Khali as Anna TenselyD.B. Woodside as Tyrone TenselyMichael Beasley as JamesDonna Biscoe as GloriaSouthey Blanton as IrvBenjamin Brown as Ray
When the film was screened at the NewFest film festival in New York City, Variety film critic Ronnie Scheib, praised the film, writing, "For the black men, women and children in Mississippi Damned, Tina Mabry's autobiographical saga of intertwined destinies, that southern state epitomizes a domestic hell of borderline poverty and endemic abuse. Complex family trees sometimes make for tough narrative sledding, but the thicket of obligations, traumas and betrayals that entrap the 'damned' here are well worth any momentary confusion. Mabry brilliantly captures a community as organic as it is dead-end, and the tortured legacy behind simplistic notions of ever escaping it. The NewFest audience award-winner demands strong critical support to overcome its downbeat subject matter and lack of a star draw."
The Philadelphia Inquirer film critic, Steven Rea, lauded the actors, writing, "Kelley (Walt Lloyd in Lost), Jasmin Burke and Jossie Thacker are among the busy ensemble whose exceptionally fine performances elevate what could have been a pile-it-on melodrama into something deeper and more unsettling."American Black Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize, Best Actor, Tessa Thompson; Best Narrative Feature; 2009.Atlanta Film Festival: Special Jury Award, Narrative Breakthrough; 2009.Black Reel Awards: Black Reel, Outstanding Independent Feature, Tina Mabry; 2009.Chicago International Film Festival: Gold Hugo, Best Film; Gold Plaque, Best Screenplay, Tina Mabry; Best Supporting Actress, Jossie Thacker; 2009.New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Film Festival: Audience Award, Narrative Feature; 2009.Outfest: Grand Jury Award, Outstanding US Dramatic Feature; 2009.Philadelphia Film Festival: Jury Award, Best American Independent Film; 2009.
Despite a successful festival run, the film was unable to find distribution. The producer distributed it into a few theatres. In 2011 it premiered on Showtime and in 2015 it was made available through Netflix via distributor ARRAY.