A chapter in the life of artist Beverly McIver unfolds through a patient and graceful lens in the new documentary, “Raising Renee,” which airs tonight on HBO. The film, directed by husband-and-wife team Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, chronicles the fulfillment of a promise the African-American artist made to her mother, Ethel, to care for Beverly’s 43-year-old mentally disabled sister when Ethel died. The film tackles both the sacrifices artists make to pursue their work, and the difficulties faced by families of the disabled.
“It was going to be a film about me and my artwork,” McIver tells ARTINFO. “And then, when they started filming, my mother got sick, and then she died three months later. And so everything changed.” The project was sparked when Jordan and McIver met as fellows at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Intrigued by McIver’s autobiographical paintings – intimate, sometimes political self-portraits and portraits of family members – Jordan noticed that the works resembled movie stills, and proposed the documentary.
McIver was born in Greensboro, NC, in 1962, two years after the landmark Woolworth sit-ins. Ethel raised Beverly, the youngest of three, and her sisters – Renee, the oldest, who was diagnosed with epilepsy as a child and was prone to violent episodes; and Roni, the middle daughter – as a single mother working as a maid for white families in Greensboro. They lived in the housing project that became notorious in 1979 when a bloody, anti-KKK riot ended with five people killed. When Beverly finally escaped the segregation and racism that marked her childhood, she swore she would never live in the South again. She eventually settled in Phoenix, becoming an art professor at Arizona State University.
The film, which was shot over the course of six years, begins in New York in 2003, at the opening of McIver’s first solo show in the city, where she was living for a year after winning a grant. Ethel and Renee, now a mild, sweet-natured adult who functions at the level of a third-grader and spends much of her time making colorful potholders, flew up from North Carolina for the opening.
After Ethel’s death, Beverly makes good on her promise. With admitted ambivalence, she gives up her life as an up-and-coming artist and takes full responsibility for Renee, bringing her back home to Phoenix.
It is here that Ascher and Jordan delicately unveil the layers that make up the private world of a family. As the film progresses, the subjects become less aware of the camera and unselfconsciousnessly reveal themselves. The result is somewhat discomfiting in its naked portrayal of these very real people and their daily lives, but through this perspective, some big subjects are woven in.
The film, Jordan notes, is “about disability, race, class, humor, family, art. It just has so many different ways that people hook into it. The disability community feels it’s a film for them, the art community feels it’s a film for them.”
Beverly, who assumes the role of caretaker with a mix of love, frustration, honesty, loneliness, and vigor, manages to make it work – not without the help of Renee – day by day for five years. Scenes range from the monumental to the mundane: Beverly painting in her studio, instructing students, speaking at an opening, eating dinner with Renee. Emotional shifts in both Beverly and Renee – in how they view themselves, their independence, and their relationship – are reflected in Beverly’s art.
“It definitely affected [my work], because taking care of Renee is very time consuming,” Beverly says. “I had to tell her, ‘we’re both artists, and this is the time that we as artists go to our studios and work.’ And that was so she wouldn’t interrupt me when I was painting, which she did often. She didn’t want anything, she just wanted to know what I was doing.”
She adds, “My paintings were basically very somber, in part because I was grieving my mother’s death still … but also because I had left this life in New York and I had moved back to Arizona to take care of Renee.”
By the end of the film, the sisters are back in North Carolina. Beverly takes a position at North Carolina University – her alma mater – and the family eventually moves Renee to a near-by assisted living complex, where she embraces the opportunity to finally live in her own apartment, at age 50. What might seem like a tidy ending for a Hollywood movie is poignant here – the McIvers’ lives will continue after the credits roll. The audience is left to wonder what happens next.