“I hate cotton,” declares Laura Lee Wallace, the resilient 62-year-old matriarch in the documentary LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (Quad, June 22-28). Raised in a Mississippi Delta family of sharecroppers, LaLee started working in the plantations at age six and, a few years later, dropped out of school without ever learning to read; she remembers thinking of it as “big money” when her hourly rate finally crept up to over a dollar. Subsisting on a disability stipend, LaLee now lives in a trailer with no running water (she drives to the county jail to stock up), and her home doubles as a day-care center for her brood of “grands” and “great-grands.”
Directors Susan Froemke, Deborah Dickson, and Albert Maysles bring an uncondescending compassion and a clear-eyed outrage to this portrait. (The 67-year-old Maysles, who won a cinematography prize at Sundance this year, handles his digital camera with typically alert poise.) LaLee’s daily struggles are intercut with the efforts of local school superintendent Reggie Barnes to elevate his district’s standardized test scores (and fend off a takeover by the state). Barnes’s single-minded mission provides the filmmakers with the sort of narrative arc that verité often relies on—and it also throws into sharp relief the relentlessly cyclical nature of the problems at hand. While LaLee, whose 12-year-old granddaughter is enrolled in one of Barnes’s schools, recognizes the importance of an education—”You gotta go to school or go to jail,” she admonishes the kids—some days just getting hold of pen and paper can be an insurmountable obstacle. LaLee isn’t one to complain, though, mostly projecting a good-natured weariness. Her single on-camera breakdown is heartrending—when a son gets arrested for crack possession, she recalls the death of another. “You like to love your children,” she says, tearing up. “But don’t love ’em too hard.”
In August 1999, 10 students at John Marshall High (two miles east of Hollywood) were each handed a camcorder and asked to document their lives for a week. They then passed the cameras along to another group of 10, and this continued for the rest of the academic year. Director Kirby Dick sifted through hundreds of hours of footage, chose 16 kids, and edited down their self-portraits into a sporadically revealing patchwork titled Chain Camera (Screening Room, June 22-28). The subjects are a varied bunch (cutting through racial lines, sexual boundaries, economic strata, and high school caste systems), and their modes of self-presentation no less diverse—a mix of soapboxing and showboating, trash talk and idle chat, comedy sketches and diaristic confessionals.