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'The Education of Dee Dee Ricks': A Moral Problem

Cancer patient Cynthia Dodson's situation is shaped by her lack of money: she and her father Hugh struggle to pay for treatment: one chemo pill, she notes, costs $137.

The Education of Dee Dee Ricks

Director: Perri Peltz
Cast: Dee Dee Ricks, Cynthia Dodson, Harold Freeman
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-10-27 (HBO)

Dee Dee Ricks grew up, she says, in "the South, one step away from poor white trash. I had a very troubled childhood. My parents were divorced. I moved out when I was 13 years old and started working." Photos show Ricks as a girl, squinting into the sunlight and smiling with her mother and her father, in separate shots, then dressed in a striped apron and red cap, working at a fast food place. In this photo, she looks surprised at the camera: her mouth is open, her hand in mid-movement. Fellow workers bustle and blur around her.

Coming early in The Education of Dee Dee Ricks, these shots confirm her self-image as a hard worker who escaped her past. At the start of the documentary (which premieres on HBO 27 October), she's living elsewhere, namely, in a $14 million apartment, with two "gorgeous boys." A stunningly successful hedge fund consultant, she appears in a set of other photos: busy, professional, slick. But even as you might anticipate her education might have to do with the recession or Wall Street scandals, she reveals that it's something much more immediate. She's diagnosed with breast cancer.

Ricks' decision to be in a film about her ordeal begins with a sudden sense of her mortality. "I didn’t know if it had traveled," she says of the cancer inside her, "So there was a part of me in my head that said, 'I just want to record me being with the boys, because if something happens to me in two or three years, they won't remember me. All they'll have are these videos." She's tearful as she recounts her thinking, and the film shows some of her homemade footage, standing before a mirror for her confessional, her youngest son in a Darth Vader mask (introduced, of course, by his breathing, from offscreen), asking her kids if they understand what's about to happen as she heads to surgery.

The camera pushes close on one son as he twists in his chair, arms over his head as he's at once aware of the camera and his mother's hopeful expectation: "They're going to cut your… what is it called again?" She narrows the question, "What do we call it?" "I forgot," comes the answer, as Ricks fills in, helpfully. "Breasts," she says. "Breasts," he repeats, and the camera cuts back to a wider shot, including little Darth Vader on the frame's edge.

While the film doesn't focus on the effects of their mother's crisis on "the boys," they appear repeatedly in scenes at her apartment (which she notes a couple of more times, is worth $14 million), embodiments of how hard she works to maintain their routines and not let on how she's feeling. The process begins as Ricks goes on to the hospital, appears disheveled and disoriented, comes home with a nurse who helps her as she first looks at herself in the mirror, and then begins chemo. At first, Ricks has no notion of what chemo can do to her: she prepares by shopping for wigs at Raffaele Mollica and going to the gym, imagining that if she's "strong, then it's not going to win."

Though she's surprised at how well the first session goes ("It was so easy, it didn’t hurt, it didn’t burn," she tells the camera that's leading her onto the sidewalk out of the upscale facility, "The nurses found the veins right away!"), a couple of weeks later, she's feeling effects. Medical bills begin to bother her -- not that she can't pay, but that insurance companies are deceitful as to what they might cover and what they finally will -- and her mood is affected ("I'm in chemo meltdown," she moans, her face pale and eyes bloodshot).

Still, Ricks remains aware of how her affluence helps her to deal with cancer in ways that others might not (Ricks' team is located at Sloan-Kettering). Near the start of her treatment, she visits with Dr. Harold Freeman of the Ralph Lauren Cancer Center in New York. She asks what he needs, and when he says he needs matching funds ($2.5 million), she says quickly, "Consider it done." The scene is instructive in any number of ways, not least in the cuts between the two subjects, Freeman near tears and asking forgiveness for his emotional display, Ricks pleased that she can help and sure of herself. This is what she does, she makes money, she asserts. Outside, on the sidewalk again, she says, "I don’t think I've ever been more affected in my life."

Ricks will be increasingly "affected" when she meets and becomes friends with one of Dr. Freeman's patients, Cynthia Dodson, diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer at 41. (There's a backstory here that reframes seeming coincidences: filmmaker Perri Peltz did a TV news story on Dodson and the Ralph Lauren Center before he began the project with Ricks, which only means that he has as much to do with the story's eventual shape as anyone, making the documentary a collaborative effort.)

The relationship between Dodson and Ricks, initially represented in some showy embraces and pledges of mutual understanding and appreciation, ends up taking place mostly off-screen, in Ricks' descriptions and in phone calls. Dodson's situation is shaped by her lack of money: she and her father Hugh struggle to pay for treatment (one chemo pill, she notes, costs $137). Her condition worsens and Ricks becomes, in her own words, "her person," the one who might have to "make decisions." (This despite the fact that Hugh appears early in the film and goes with her to doctors' appointments.) Whatever you see or don't see of the friendship, it is key to the film's project, that is, to show Ricks' education.

Dr. Freeman helpfully articulates the primary lesson, which is, after all, a function of the class divisions and economic disparities you might have contemplated at film's start. "When you're poor," he notes, the lack of access to health care becomes not only a medical and mental challenge, but also "a moral problem," for the culture at large. "We may not be able to change who is poor," he tells Ricks, "We may be able to change what happens to people who are poor." His hope is heartfelt and his work -- like Ricks' here -- is inspiring. The problem remains gargantuan.


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