Del Shores takes on domestic violence, critics with new film

"Blues for Willadean" cast (left to right): writer-director Del Shores, Debby Holiday, Dale Dickey, David Steen, Beth Grant and a member of the production staff. Photo by Michael C. Green.

Moviegoers who see Del Shores’ new film, “Blues for Willadean,” may find themselves in one of two camps.

There are the viewers who see the Southern characters in this domestic violence drama as over-the-top and unintentionally farcical. Some may dismiss the film as two-dimensional and unrealistic, while for others that’s reason enough to see it.

In the other camp are viewers familiar with the people and culture of the American South. For them, the film depicts characters and situations as real and gritty as their neighbors’ and friends’ lives. The cast, many of whom hail from below the Mason-Dixon line, are staunchly in this camp.

Beth Grant, who plays the title role, describes Shores as a preacher with a consistent message in his films to accept people as they are.

“He writes about the forgotten people,” she adds. “They’re people I knew all my life and I was always observing. People will say they’re stereotypes and they’re not real – they’re a bunch of Yankees and they don’t know what they’re talking about. … They’re pseudo-sophisticated people who don’t know the South.”

Co-star Dale Dickey, who grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., and plays Martha Bozeman on “True Blood,” says Shores’ characters are broad but there are people like that. “I do a lot of Southern roles,” she says. “I understand the rhythm, the characters. Del’s work speaks to me.”

Dickey, Grant and other cast members (except Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) recently reunited with Shores for a screening of the film at Camelot Theatres, where a decade ago Shores’ “Sordid Lives” played for more than 90 weeks. That film – which focused on a young California guy’s reluctant return to his Texas hometown for a funeral and to come out to his family – also included eccentric characters with quirks and humor not uncommon in Southern communities.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in the South (Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina), I was reminded of people I’ve known while watching the film. Though I haven’t seen “Blues” yet, I quickly discerned from chatting with Shores and the cast that I would have a similar experience watching it.

Both films are based on plays by Shores. “Blues” retains the story line and cast of its stage run as “The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife.” In fact, it was Spencer’s first play, Shores says. The biggest difference between the films is that “Sordid Lives” primarily is a comedy.

“Blues” is at times heavy and dark with comedic moments, a different kind of film for Shores. He changed the title of the film and took out some of the comedy because of the seriousness of spousal abuse, he says.

His hope is that moviegoers will “look around and see, ‘Is there anybody who needs me?’ The wonderful thing about Octavia Spencer’s character is she saw and she didn’t shut up.”

Considering the staggering statistics of domestic violence, it doesn’t seem farfetched that any segment of the population – Southern, over-the-top, animated, whatever the situation – is affected. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women, and a woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds in the U.S., according to
Grant says she hopes the film, which includes her first lead role, shines a light on “this shameful issue” so that those who need help see themselves in it and get help.