Many of us may have made a promise to go home and take care of parents or other family members when they need us the most. But do we all keep our promise? The new documentary titled – Raising Renee – looks at one such life-changing promise. The film centers on Durham-based artist Beverly McIver and her sister Renee McIver. The U.S. premiere ofRaising Renee is today at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham.
Beverly McIver’s art has been shown in galleries all over the country – Detroit – Seattle – Durham.
But right around the time when she arranged a sweet deal that allowed her to divide her time between Arizona State University and New York City, was when it came time keep a promise she made to her mother. And that promise was to take care of her developmentally disabled older sister – Renee – when mother – Ethel McIver was gone. She died in 2004.
The ups and downs of keeping that promise are chronicled in the new documentary “Raising Renee.”
Beverly McIver: "I can’t be my mom, there’s no way. I can’t give Renee the life they’ve had together for the past 43 years. They live in housing for the elderly and disabled. And they do good deeds."
Beverly McIver was on a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University when she met documentary film-maker Jeanne (Jean) Jordan – also a fellow. Their studios were next to each other.
Jeanne Jordan: " I just found Beverly’s story amazing, she’s very open, her painting is beautiful and then Steve met her and felt the same things and she was willing to do this with us. It was great!"
Steve Ascher is Jordan’s husband and also a producer, director and cinematographer on “Raising Renee.”
Steve Archer: "Her mother Ethel was a maid, raised the children as a single mother and to see this incredible kind of transformation in a generation from Ethel’s life to Beverly’s as a successful artist and professor, it’s a really kind of classic American story in some ways."
The McIver’s were one of many African American families living in the Morningside Homes public housing development in Greensboro. In 1979 – five people were killed at an anti Ku Klux Klan rally there.
The documentary moves seamlessly from North Carolina, to New York, to Arizona and back to North Carolina again.
The film-makers say it took Renee McIver about five minutes to get used to the camera following her around. She has the mindset of a third grader.
Renee McIver: "I have a boyfriend and he’s sickly like me. Seizures, epilepsy and I’ve been going with him for a long time."
Beverly McIver: "And I also felt it was more difficult to date with Renee, she would be jealous…”Well I don’t have a boyfriend.” So we just sort of made a pact that we would be single women, two single sisters living together. I mean how horrible is that! (laugh)"
Leoneda Inge:" You haven’t broken that pact yet!"
I met Beverly at Craven Allen Gallery in Durham where she has a new show. She likes how the film mixes her art life, and her personal life – and raising Renee – who is often the subject of her art.
Beverly McIver: " If Renee was having a bad day, everybody was having a bad day, so I painted about being in Renee’s shadow, right – prior to inheriting Renee. That changed when Renee came to live with me – and then I started painting her as someone I was taking care of, this person I was responsible for which was sort of interesting…the only thing that I had ever taken care of are my cats."
Beverly says there were many times when she got frustrated caring for Renee, but says that never meant she didn’t love her sister.
Beverly McIver: "I hope that the film will give caretakers permission to say, taking care of my loved one is very, very difficult and not feel guilty about that or feel like they are a bad person."
Beverly says the important thing is Renee is happy. She’s now 51 and lives in her own apartment in Greensboro – special housing for the developmentally disabled. And there is a lot of family nearby – like Renee’s other sister Veronica Bryant.
Meanwhile - Beverly lives in Durham and teaches Art at North Carolina Central University. She’ll have a solo show at the North Carolina Museum of Art later this year.
Inge: "Is that a self portrait?"
Beverly McIver: "Yes, that’ the most recent painting here, this one. And it’s called "Truly Grateful." It’s probably still wet, it’s about exhaling, and you know being grateful for a good life, good friends, family."
Inge: "You have a lot to be grateful for?"
Beverly McIver: "Yeah, absolutely, absolutely."