July 29, 2011
“Raising Renee,” by Newton filmmakers Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher, is an honest and intimate portrait of a family and the issues of race, class, and intellectual disability that they face. The feature documentary (81 minutes) will be screened on Monday, August 1, at 7 PM in Redfield Auditorium on Water Street.
As the film opens, Beverly McIver, an accomplished painter, is happily pursuing her career, winning awards, exhibiting her work. In 2003, she had her first solo exhibit in New York City, and she flew her mother, Ethel, and her sister Renee up from Greensboro, North Carolina, where she had grown up in the projects.
The documentary captures that trip. We meet Ethel and Renee, who is often the subject of Beverly’s bold, colorful portraits. Renee, 43, is mentally disabled, functioning at about the 3rd grade level.
Violent and angry when growing up, Renee developed a more gentle nature in her adult years. She spends her days making potholders, selling them for $1.25 each. She and Ethel live in housing for the elderly and disabled, and Ethel takes care of Renee’s every need, and they do good deeds for other people, without ever asking for money in return.
When making out her will, Ethel asked Beverly to take care of Renee after her death, and Beverly reluctantly agreed, though she was single and had never taken care of anything other than her cats. Her mother was strong and healthy, though, and Beverly did not expect anything to happen.
The next year, however, Ethel is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the end comes quickly. And Beverly must fulfill her promise to her mother.
The film follows Beverly and her family over six years, from the solo exhibit, through the death of Ethel, and during five years of Beverly and Renee’s life together. We learn about the changes Beverly must make in her life, her frustrations with Renee, her fears that her life as an artist is over, and we see the deep love this family has for one another.
Illustrating the film are Beverly’s wonderful portraits of Renee and of family scenes. We see her painting techniques and learn about the evolution of her approach over time.
Beverly tells what it was like growing up in the South, about poverty, racial discrimination, and violence against African Americans. Beverly’s bluntness, her vibrant personality, Renee’s quiet endurance, and the sensitive work of the filmmakers draw one into this eloquent and warm-hearted portrait of a family.