“HIV is the leading cause of death for black women ages 25 to 34,” says Queen Latifah, to a sparse gathering of young black and Latina women in Life Support, an upcoming film (airing March 10th on HBO) highlighting AIDS in the black community. An HBO Films presentation, the project is directed by veteran writer Nelson George, written by George, Jim McKay, and Hannah Weyer, and executive produced by Latifah and Jamie Foxx, among others.
Latifah stars as Anna Wallace, an HIV-positive mother working to educate other women about safe sex and HIV/AIDS. Anna walks with a cane in her right hand, to relieve HIV-related pain in her feet, wheeling a small suitcase in her left, in which is kept free condoms and brochures about Life Support, the Brooklyn-based nonprofit where she works.
The organization’s motto, “Women Fighting AIDS”, is embodied by Anna’s efforts to save lives through intervention – beating the pavement with vital information, talking sense to recalcitrant youth, and physically rescuing them when duty calls. Her work garners the good graces of her colleagues, though her life is a lesson in sacrificing her own health for the betterment of others.
We get a sense, early on, that Anna is atoning for her sins. She and her husband Slick, played by Wendell Pierce, are recovering intravenous (IV) drug addicts. Shooting up is what got both of them sick with the virus. Though both hold down steady jobs and are good parents to their nine-year-old daughter, Kim (Rayelle Parker), drugs cost Anna her oldest child. She signed over custody of her daughter Kelly, played by newcomer Rachel Hicks, to her mother Lucille, played by Anna Deveare Smith.
More than a decade later, though she has cleaned up her act and carved out a fulfilling life as a safe-sex advocate, Anna is still fighting to rebuild her family. She’s up against an angry daughter who blames Anna for not providing a stable childhood; a frustrated husband tired of being punished for both of their mistakes (Anna yells at Slick, saying, “I was careful. You was the one who went buck wild shooting up with strangers on the corner!”); and a relentless disease that steals her energy, but not her resolve.
When Lucille decides to sell her home and move down to Virginia, leaving it up to Kelly to choose whether she stays or goes, Anna’s plan to reunite the family is thrown into jeopardy. In an attempt to regain her daughter’s trust, Anna goes on a mission to find Amare (Evan Ross), Kelly’s HIV-positive friend who is homeless after his sister Tanya (Tracee Ellis Ross) kicked him out.
Anna travels to soup kitchens, confronts a down-low music producer (Darrin Dewitt Henson), and ultimately finds Amare wasting away outside his sister’s apartment in the projects. But saving him may not be enough to save her family – Anna must let Kelly go in order to win her love, and hopefully get her back. Anna’s story is loosely based on writer/director Nelson George’s sister, Andrea Williams, who contracted the virus after having unprotected sex with her IV drug-using husband. (Williams lives in Crown Heights and works for Life Force, a women’s organization dedicated to reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS.)
The film marks George’s directorial debut, although, at the ripe age of 49, he has garnered critical acclaim as a prolific writer of works such as Hip Hop America, Urban Romance, and the hilarious rapumentary CB4 (Universal Pictures, 1993). His comic muscled is flexed, however briefly, in a monologue by an HIV-positive male at a church support group, who says, “Maybe I got that same entrepreneur strain of HIV like Magic [Johnson] got. He put up movie theatres all across the country, put frappucinos in the ‘hood, did a commercial for Lincoln Navigator! This HIV could be the kick in the ass I need to get my life on the right track.”
George’s foray into directing is not without its high points, among them solid performances by Latifah, who takes a dramatic turn that is poignant and affecting, drawing upon her own experiences losing family and friends to AIDS. Deavere Smith predictably anchors the film, painting a picture of how HIV/AIDS doesn’t just affect an individual, but the lives of the people in who love them too. “I do not want you having the same life as your mother!” she yells at Kelly. “You need to very careful about the people that you pick for your friends and the influence that they have on your life. Anna hurt me. It’s taken me a long time to forgive her, and sometimes I still can’t.”
Hicks delivers a convincing debut performance, while Gloria Reuben is a comforting presence as Anna’s colleague Sandra, harking back to her days as the HIV-positive Jeanie Boulet on ER, though George doesn’t fully utilize her acting ability. At the end of the day, it’s the telling that brings Life Support up short. It’s more of a treatise than a film. Some of the dialogue is too contrived, trying to tell us something, though the actors manage to pull it off.
Instead of showing how Anna contracted HIV, she tells us in a speech or a heated argument with her husband, rehashing his past misdeeds. It’s up to us to imagine what she looked like as a crackhead, which is a difficult prospect, given Queenie’s righteous demeanor. One would have an easier time imagining a Girl Scout turned ax murderer than the stoic Anna Wallace being a former drug fiend. She tells us that she was, (saying to Kelly, “Deep down inside, I’m still that same old drug fiend. Still scheming. Only this time, it ain’t for drugs; it’s for you”), but the words ring hollow without images to back them up.
Not enough is shown about what it means to live with the virus on a daily basis. Anna takes a handful of pills at the beginning of the film, but aside from limping and complaining to her doctor about her diarrhea-inducing pain meds, we don’t see much else. Slick never so much as pops a pill. Though I know a thing or two about HIV/AIDS, the film portrays it as no more life-threatening than diabetes. What does shine through, nevertheless, are the life experiences of safe sex advocates and real women living with the virus, in a series of group talks that seem wholly improvisational, featuring the real-life Andrea Williams.
Revealed are the true misconceptions about HIV/AIDS (One woman says, “He didn’t have that look,” to which another replies, “There is no look!”), the practical difficulty of asserting sexual boundaries (“I was young, he was older, he looked nice. I asked him [to put on a condom], he said no, and that was it”), and the stigma associated with the disease (“Rejection is hard. They walk out the door and you know you’re never hearing from them, they’re never gonna call you”). The women are young and old, strong and weak, feisty and witty. They are real women, not the stereotypes so often presented in popular media.
At the end of the day, the magic is in the real women, not the performances. Perhaps Andrea’s story about turning life’s sour lemons into lemonade would be better told as a documentary than a talk-u-drama.