Review by Sean Boelman
Taking its subtitle from an iconic poem by Maya Angelou, Mossville: When Great Trees Fall is a new documentary exploring some very timely issues in an unexpected way. Thanks to its urgent and powerful message, director Alex Glustrom has delivered a call to action that demands to be seen by audiences.
The film takes a look at a historical African-American community in Louisiana whose residents and land are increasingly threatened every day by the encroaching influence of industry. With this story, Glustrom is able to blend elements of environmental and social activism so that both problems feel all the more urgent.
At the core of the movie is the story of an environmental activist who is working to fight back against the evil corporations that intend to take his home away from him. This portion of the film is certainly very compelling in a way akin to Erin Brockovich, and it’s harrowing to think that big business is still doing things like this nearly thirty years after the events of that movie happened.
However, the more interesting aspect of the film is its exploration of Mossville as a part of its residents’ cultural identity. The community was formed by liberated slaves soon after they gained their freedom, and the people of Mossville today still take pride in their origins. This adds an extra layer of heartbreak to the injustices being committed against the movies’ subjects.
Glustrom does a very good job of connecting the audience with the main subject, Stacey Ryan. Born and raised in Mossville, Ryan has a deep-rooted connection to the history of the community, and as a result, the film has a very welcome personal touch to it. It’s hard to watch as Ryan’s world crumbles down around him.
Of course, even though this story is that of a small and tight-knit community, it is representative of some of the greater issues happening in America today. This situation is not black-and-white at all, and while Glustrom’s movie isn’t as effective at acknowledging the other perspective as it needs to be for its argument to be entirely measured, it works well enough.
On a technical level, Glustrom’s film is relatively strong. The story is told through a combination of interviews with residents of Mossville and fly-on-the-wall footage following Ryan as he attempts to free himself and his community from the grasp of the processing plants. It is the latter method that is more cinematic, but the movie is well-told as a whole.
Mossville: When Great Trees Fall is an ambitious documentary that tries to tackle a lot, and surprisingly, it pulls it off. At a mere seventy-five minutes, viewers have little excuse not to watch this important film.
Mossville: When Great Trees Fall streams in partnership with indie theaters beginning May 7. A list of participating locations can be found here.