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'Raising Renee' is a Portrait of Portraits

At once intimate and detached, observational and interactive, these relationships raise questions about how portraits can reveal and also reframe artists and subjects.

Raising Renee

Director: Jeanne Jordan, Steven Ascher
Cast: Beverly McIver, Renee McIver, Roni Bryant, Ethel McIver
Rated: NR
Studio: West City Films/HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-02-22 (HBO2)

"I'm tired of being nice," says Beverly McIver. She smiles as she says it, as she is, in fact, incredibly nice. At the moment, she's facing a crisis, the imminent death of her beloved mother Ethel, who has cancer. But still, Beverly, an artist currently living in Tribeca on a fellowship, is working with filmmakers Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher to complete the film, Raising Renee.

Renee is Beverly's sister, older by two years and mentally disabled, function at the level of an "undeveloped third grader." Renee has lived with Ethel for all of her 48 years, and her favorite activity is making potholders. She makes these all day long, except when she rides along with Ethel in order to do "good deeds," namely, transporting friends in Greensboro NC to the store or the library. Beverly's view on the potholders is what you might call philosophical: they fill up Renee's time and they provide her with a sense of accomplishment. Beverly also lets slip one of her greatest fears while at an art gallery where her paintings are on display. A magazine writer is following her around for the night of her opening, and Renee offers him a potholder. "The nightmare," Beverly smiles (again), "is the potholder's going to end up on the cover of Art in America and not one of my paintings."

This isn't to say Beverly doesn't adore her sister, the subject of many of her portrait paintings and whom she describes as a "nice person" or again, "nice, now." But they have a history, which Beverly describes briefly: when they were kids, Renee, who has epilepsy that is mostly managed by medication, could sometimes be "violent." She would sometimes "hit me or throw me down the stairs or just be mean," narrates Beverly as the film shows a series of snapshots of Renee, ending on a shot where she's looking especially stern.

The sisters' relationship changes during the movie, when Ethel dies and Beverly keeps a promise to her, that she will bring Renee to live with her. At first, this means they'll be together in Tempe, where Renee is a tenured professor at Arizona State University (brief clips of her working with students suggest that she's also a terrific teacher, funny and sharp and encouraging too). But Beverly worries about leaving Renee alone all day while she works, and soon sorts out a way to move back to North Carolina, the state where their older sister Ronie lives with her husband Hobson.

Accepting a position in Durham, Beverly explains why she was the sister who left North Carolina. Every time she goes back to Greensboro, she's reminded of how segregated the city was and is. The camera drives past a Woolworths to cue your own memory of the 1960 sit-ins, as she remembers being bused to white schools as a child, Beverly did her best not to let her white friends know that she lived in the projects, with her sisters and their single mother, who worked as a maid. "When I go back to visit my family," Beverly says, "I'm not there an hour before somebody white reminds me that I'm black. You know, whether it's through service at a restaurant or being ignored, it’s something. Something reminds me that I'm in the South and that I'm totally a second-class citizen."

This process of being reminded is illustrated by photos of Beverly in Clown Club, her face painted white: it was a way to fit in, she says. Still, she sees North Carolina as an easier place for Renee to negotiate, and so they pack up Beverly's two cats and move "back." Beverly explains her background and her understanding of her family relationships: she notes almost in passing that Renee is hoping to find a white boyfriend, a possibility that Beverly admits she's never considered for herself.

As Beverly thinks through her new life, the film includes some of her interactions with Jordan and, especially, Ascher, who asks questions from off camera. "Isn't it kind of nice having company wen you come home?" he asks, the frame focused on Beverly working on a canvas. "You shouldn’t ask me that, because I would have to say right now that I really like coming home when there's no one at home ,you know?" She likes to have quiet after a day at the university, she says, and Renee, who's been home all day alone "is like chatterbox city." Even if she's still assessing their childhood -- when Renee was "this bigger than life creature" whose changes in moods or epileptic fits dominated the family's days-- Beverly says now, "It's hard to say, 'Shut up, shut up, shut up.' How rude is that?"

Ascher's relationship with Renee is also on display, at least briefly. When Beverly goes to work, or when, at last, Renee moves into her own apartment, the filmmakers spend time with her, apart from her sister. "One of the great things about having your own place," Ascher offers while the camera watches Renee unpacking boxes, "is you get to figure out where everything goes." You keep watching as Renee puts the salt and pepper in the freezer. Ascher makes a suggestion, still off-screen: "I think you might want to put the salt and pepper on the table."

It's a small moment, and indicative of the details of emotion and trust that must be worked out in relationships between filmmakers and subjects, relationships that in this case lasts years. At once intimate and detached, observational and interactive, these relationships turn into a series of questions in the film, concerning the ways portraits can reveal and also reframe artists and subjects.


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