'Renee' raises identity and inclusion issues
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 9, 2012 - “Raising Renee” begins joyously in 2003 at the New York City gallery opening of Beverly McIver. Her mother and sister, Renee, are there to celebrate the moment and support her. But as the documentary unfolds it will be Beverly who provides the support.
The powerful, award-winning film spans seven years in the lives of the two sisters: Beverly, an artist known for her cinematic portraiture, and Renee, who is mentally disabled. The documentary chronicles their lives and focuses on the dynamic of living with and overcoming a disability.
Beverly's doing well in 2003 as a teacher and artist on the rise. But a year later, her mother dies, leaving Beverly to take care for her sister.
Beverly is uprooted from a comfortable teaching job at Arizona State University and returns to her native North Carolina to teach at her alma mater, North Carolina Central University. As the years go by, we see Beverly juggle her life to accommodate her career as an artist/professor and her personal role as a caregiver. The documentary unfolds with unrestrained honesty and poignancy showing Beverly never wavering in her desire to help Renee become more self-sufficient and independent.
“Raising Renee” demonstrates what people do to overcome adversity and break down barriers. It also is a film about the importance of love and community, illustrating how someone with a disability can achieve a normal and peaceful life. It serves well as the concluding movie in Washington University School of Law's three-film series “Narratives of Law and Life: Using Film to Explore the State’s Role in Constructing Identity.”
The series celebrates documentary filmmaking as an evocative medium creating racial and gender justice by examining how our culture acts, reacts and often unreacts to the tensions, troubles and issues facing modern society.
And “Raising Renee,” directed by husband and wife Jeanne Jordan and Steve Ascher, reveals the complex issues of disability, care giving and personal autonomy while reinforcing the values of family and community. The questions fit into the law school's theme of construction of identity while looking at disability accommodation, anti-discrimination law, family law, trusts and estates, labor law, and feminist legal theory.
Elizabeth Chen, a third year law student at Washington University and one of the film series’ organizers (in conjunction with law professors Laura Rosenbury and Susan Appleton), talked about the film's importance.
“The film raises many interesting issues that not enough people talk about, including how we think of disability, the valuation of autonomy in society, how caregiving is often gendered and racialized, and the importance of family,” Chen said. “The film speaks to these issues and does so through the lens of Beverly McIver's art as well.”
Chen also sees parallels with the work being done in the arts in our own community. “I think Joan Lipkin's work at That Uppity Theater Company, at the intersection of art and disability, coincides with many of the themes of the film,” she said.
Lipkin, artistic director of that Uppity Theatre Company and The DisAbilty Project (an organization of people with and without disabilities who create and then tour original material about the culture of disability), believes the local disabled community can take some things away from the film. “I am reminded how important community is to ensure quality of life for all, both the caregiver and the care recipient,” Lipkin said.
“All too often, we take for granted the needs of the caregivers, who frequently are devoted and wanting very much to do the right thing. It is important that we also ask how their needs can be addressed. Another thing the film brings home is the concept or the idea of growth and progress. In some ways, Renee's mother sheltered her, assuming that she couldn't manage many adult responsibilities. However, the film demonstrated that Renee seemed to enjoy and even thrive living on her own and having more social interactions after she had moved out her sister's house.”
“Raising Renee” also struck close to home for Chen. “The film resonates with me personally because my own father took in his sister, my aunt, who has an intellectual disability, and is her caregiver,” she said. “In addition, I think members of the community, many of whom currently have or will have care giving responsibilities for aging parents, will find that the film resonates with them.”
Lipkin, who will be on a discussion panel after the film screens, said, “I was touched by the deeply rooted sense of responsibility, devotion and close connection of Renee to her sister and also to carry on the commitment to her deceased mother,” she said. “Although some version of this story is playing out silently in thousands of households across the country, we don't hear about it with great frequency. Disability is a fact of life, and at some point everyone will experience some element of disability if they live long enough. We need to develop more systems to affordably and compassionately support people's ability to live full and dignified lives.”
“Raising Renee” was named best documentary at the 2011 Syracuse Film Festival and was recently screened on HBO. The goal of the three films in the series is to illustrate symmetry between the law and documentary while mirroring the times we live in. When combined with the power of law, documentaries can become profound works of reflection and tools for activism. These screenings are made possible from a Diversity and Inclusion Grant from the Office of the Provost at Washington University and are co-sponsored by the Black Law Students Association.
On Friday, April 13, further roundtable discussion about "Raising Renee" will be held over lunch, courtesy of the Office of the Provost. The location for Friday’s roundtable discussion will be sent to people who make reservations, which are required because of limited space. To make reservations, contact Elizabeth Chen at email@example.com.
The goal of the three films is to illustrate the symmetry between the law and documentary while mirroring the times we live in. When combined with the potent power of law, documentaries can become highly profound works of reflection and tools for activism. These screenings are made possible from a Diversity and Inclusion Grant from the Office of the Provost at Washington University and are co-sponsored by the Black Law Students Association.