Albert Maysles, Deborah Dickson, Susan Froemke, 2001, 88 min
LALEE's KIN takes us deep into the Mississippi Delta and the intertwined lives of LaLee Wallace, a great-grandmother struggling to hold her world together in the face of dire poverty, and Reggie Barnes, superintendent of the embattled West Tallahatchie School System. The film explores the painful legacy of slavery and sharecropping in the Delta.
62 -year old LaLee Wallace is the lifeblood of this film. Matriarch to an extended family that moves in and out of her house, LaLee is a woman of contradictions and hope. "Could have been worse," she says quietly, surveying the rat- and roach-infested trailer she has been granted through a government program after her own house was condemned.
Wallace grew up in a family of sharecroppers; she began picking cotton at the age of six, stopped attending school a few years later, and still cannot read. As happened throughout the South, sharecropping gave way to low-paid labor, but with the enforcement of minimum wage laws and increasing mechanization, even those jobs were hard to come by. Without education or skills, Wallace and other residents of Tallahatchie County had few options, and the poverty and hopelessness they felt was passed down to the generations that followed. The film also profiles educator
Reggie Barnes, who is determined to stop this cycle.
Barnes was hired as Superintendent of Schools in West Tallahatchie in an effort to get the school district off probation, where it was placed by the Mississippi Department of Education because of poor student performance on statewide standardized tests (the Iowa Test for Basic Skills, ITBS). If Barnes fails to raise the school from its current Level 1 status to a Level 2, the state of Mississippi has threatened to take over. Barnes and his faculty oppose this, fearing that administrators in far-off Jackson would not do as well in addressing the special needs of the community. "It's a different world," he says. "We get kids in kindergarten who don't know their names; we get kids in kindergarten who don't know colors; we get kids in kindergarten who have never been read to." He adds, "If we can educate the children of the illiterate parent, we stop this vicious cycle."
LaLee’s Kin adheres to the rigorous and sober-minded Maysles
brothers’ tradition of presenting things as they are without
editorializing. The balance between feeling and distance is
never a contradiction here but, rather, the dynamic that makes this film an especially humanistic entry in the Maysles canon.”
–Robert Koehler, DAILY VARIETY, 2001
Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Best
Cinematography award in the Documentary Competition
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 74th Academy Awards