Film Review #138: Life Support
Director: Nelson George
Cast: Queen Latifah, Wendell Pierce, Anna Deavere Smith
“I saw that,” said one of my friend’s daughters almost at once, pausing to smile broadly and nod her head. “It was good!”
A couple Saturday nights before Thanksgiving in a bustling kitchen with the TV on, three grown daughters home at once and reminiscing, a new baby girl, plus a 17-month-old grandson already well in touch with his charisma, and in the midst of this – as I’m telling my friend about Queen Latifah starring in Nelson George’s Life Support, about a women’s HIV support group in Brooklyn – that daughter looks up quickly, remembering this film from its HBO broadcast way back in early March. Then Life Support came out quietly on DVD in early August – never hitting the Syracuse racks – but now it’s getting a second look as year-end awards season and World AIDS Day programs overlap. And my God-daughter’s right: it’s good.
For the first time in a decade, despite the World Health Organization’s recent correction downward of its global estimates of HIV/AIDS numbers, new infections in the US are rising –some 40,000 annually. Among those most at risk are women of color. Of all New York City boroughs, vast Brooklyn, inscrutable to many upstaters – where Life Support occurs – has the highest incidence of HIV infections. But the very complex, human emotions and dilemmas in this film do such an end-run around our denial that chances are you’ll be too engaged to object that it can’t happen here.
Life Support is based on the actual agency Life Force, a Brooklyn project that provides HIV testing, education and peer support groups. Some paid staff are HIV+ themselves and also support group participants, such as director George’s sister, Andrea Williams, upon whom Ana Wallace (Queen Latifah) is based.
A former addict, Ana has been clean for a decade. Besides her passionate involvement in HIV advocacy, she’s blossomed as a model mom to pre-teen daughter Kim (Rayelle Parker). Elder daughter Kelly (Rachel Nicks), a high school basketball star raised by her grandmother Lucille (Anna Deavere Smith), still recalls harsher days and struggles – as really everyone in this film does – with what Nelson George calls “the difficulty of forgiveness.” She also still resents Ana’s husband Slick (Wendell Pierce, Det. Bunk Moreland in HBO’s The Wire), whose own addiction led to Ana’s infection. That this marriage is solid again owes much to Slick’s steadiness and compassion.
The side-plot driving the crisis is Kelly’s dilemma over how to best assist her childhood friend Amare (Evan Ross) – himself addicted, quite ill with AIDS, and missing on the streets after a blow-up with his older, closeted boyfriend. Amare’s sister Tanya (Tracy Ellis Ross, his real sister – both have inherited mother Diana’s looks and magnetism), tangles with Ana as Ana searches for Amare.
Nelson George, besides directing excellent performances from this cast, also wrote the film. He uses periodic support group sessions to structure advances in the plot. Ana reports upon developments, sharing the evolution of her feelings, perspective and ability to cope. Much as such groups do in real life, this device both allows for and contains emotional meltdowns in a safe place. After each such scene, Ana goes forth again to her life, embodying the axiom of incremental “progress, not perfection.”
The support group on-screen and the real one at Life Force are the same, with Andrea Williams appearing on-screen as an unnamed group member. We learn this as the film concludes and final credits roll, including an affecting montage of individual Life Force women who turn their open, level gazes directly into the camera with a subtle but startling effect of leaping through the screen into the room with us, momentarily dissolving that membrane between fiction and the lives it mirrors. But this merely culminates what the film’s been doing all along.
Most movie versions of therapy and support groups veer from naïve to preachy to satiric, but George clearly paid attention when he followed his sister around pre-production. Besides embracing Ana, these non-“actorly” women function as witnesses and chorus for the film’s entire project, and evoke a kind of ratifying call and response between Latifah’s performance and their congregation-like circle. That Nelson George wisely dramatizes his sister’s story instead of presenting it straight as documentary biography adds resonance and power; we actively imagine along with the filmmaker rather than simply spectate. The DVD extras deepen this in various ways. Besides some unusually accessible interviews, in one sequence George points at a large street map of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods on his office wall and then visits a string of named filming locations, telescoping and animating that map's world – with great economy, suddenly Brooklyn seems neither so vast nor so inscrutable.
At this stage, the name selling Life Support on the DVD cover is Latifah’s. Life-long Brooklyn resident Nelson George has not yet made many films. But he’s had years of TV and music producing, plus writing some of the most astute, compulsively readable commentary on arts and culture around – besides his columns and novels, fifteen books ranging from Motown to Hip-Hop to basketball to film. I put his Blackface: Reflections on African Americans and the Movies (1994, revised 2002) in the Genuine Find category. There, he maintains that Black women’s stories and novels are the “mother lode” future of Black cinema. With Life Support, he walks the talk. And he’s good.
This review appears in the 11/29/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.