"Raising Renee" is all about family and race and poverty in America. The documentary, premiering on HBO on February 22 at 8 p.m., resulted from a collaboration between two Radcliffe Institute fellows: filmmaker Jeanne Jordan, BI '93, RI '03, and painter Beverly McIver, RI '03—who visited the New York Harvard Club in late January to describe their collaboration. Introducing the artists, interim institute dean Lizabeth Cohen, Jones professor of American studies and herself a former fellow, said that their partnership "beautifully demonstrates the kind of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization that the Radcliffe Institute is committed to fostering."
Raising Renee is also about potholders, and everybody at the presentation got one. Why? Because the subject of the documentary, Renee McIver (Beverly's mentally disabled, epileptic, sister), makes them. They are her passion, as painting is her sister's. The film, produced and directed by Jordan and her husband, Steven Ascher '82, is about the five years Beverly spent caring for her older sister while continuing to paint and teach.
Jordan and McIver had studios next door to each other when they were Radcliffe fellows in the fall of 2002. Jordan was editing So Much So Fast, a documentary about a family's response to a diagnosis of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and McIver was working on several portraits of her mentor from her undergraduate years, who had committed suicide, a series titled Mourning Elizabeth.
Jordan often visited McIver's studio. "Your paintings look like film stills," she remarked one day, and recalled what followed: "Beverly and I talked about our work and our lives. Her beautiful paintings, as well as her openness, humor, and storytelling ability were irresistible to the filmmaker in me."
Jordan and her husband decided to start filming, even though they didn't know what the story would be. They began in the fall of 2003, when McIver's career was beginning to take off: she had her first show in New York, at Kent Gallery in SoHo, and won several honors that year, including a Tiffany Foundation Award and a Distinguished Alumni Award from Pennsylvania State University, where she had earned her M.F.A. (See some of her work on the Betty Cuningham Gallery website.)
McIver had mentioned to Jordan that she'd promised to take care of her sister if anything happened to their mother, but this seemed like a distant possibility, since Ethel had always been in good health. Then, in early 2004, McIver's mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; she died within a few months. Jordan and Ascher filmed the family as they gathered in Greensboro, North Carolina, around Ethel McIver's hospital bed, and they kept filming for five more years.
A tenured professor at Arizona State University when her mother died, Beverly McIver had an arrangement that allowed her to split her time between Manhattan and Phoenix. But she couldn't take care of Renee in her tiny New York apartment, so after the funeral, the two sisters moved west. Renee spent her days making potholders.
Beverly had already done portraits of Renee in the early 1990s, right after graduate school. "When I was making these paintings," she told the audience in New York, "I started scratching her face out. I really didn't understand at the time why that was happening. I just knew I felt an incredible amount of anger and rage toward Renee." She recalled that during childhood and adolescence, Renee was often violent, and that "every time she'd be mean, my mother would say, 'She can't help it and you shouldn't hit her back.' So I worked it out in my art."
As an adult in Arizona, though, Renee provided company for her sister, who had always lived alone except for her two cats. Yet the film shows how challenging the situation was: Beverly comes home from work eager to relax and paint, while Renee, accustomed to an extended family in Greensboro, wants company after being alone all day.
In 2007, Beverly McIver received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, North Carolina Central University, in Durham, and was recruited to teach there. She leaped at the chance, even though she'd said she would never return to the South, where she grew up poor in the projects and her mother had worked as a maid from the age of 10. She bought a new home in the countryside near Durham and moved there with Renee. The film's conclusion is truly inspiring, as Beverly helps her sister in a surprising way.
Raising Renee, the third film in Jordan and Ascher's trilogy about families in trouble, takes its place alongside the Oscar-nominated Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern (1996) and So Much So Fast (2006) as a testament to the strength that people can summon when they need to.