RAISING RENEE begins in 2003 as Beverly McIver is savoring opening night of her first solo art show in New York. A talented painter and winner of major awards, her career was skyrocketing. She flew in her mother Ethel, a maid from Greensboro, North Carolina and her sister Renee, 43, who is intellectually disabled and functions at about the level of a third grader. Years before, Beverly had casually promised her mother that she would take Renee when Ethel died, an event that seemed infinitely far off and unlikely to impinge on her life as a single woman, painting and teaching where her work took her.
But in 2004, Ethel died suddenly and Beverly’s promise was put to the test. RAISING RENEE is the story of a family’s remarkable response to being broken apart and rearranged after nearly 50 years. The film explores themes of family, race, class and disability through the interplay of painting, cinema and everyday life. Produced and directed by Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher, RAISING RENEE is the third part in a trilogy about resilient families that includes their acclaimed feature documentaries SO MUCH SO FAST and the Oscar-nominated, Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner TROUBLESOME CREEK: A MIDWESTERN.
Beverly McIver grew up in the 1960's and 70's in a housing project in Greensboro, North Carolina. Ethel singlehandedly raised her and her two sisters, working as a maid for white families. Segregation in Greensboro was notorious – it was the site of the earliest student sit-ins of the civil rights movement. A 1979 rally against the Ku Klux Klan in front of the McIvers’ house resulted in five people shot dead by the Klan.
Beverly’s talent brought her out of this world and into the world of art and a tenured professorship. It’s stunning to see the dream of upward mobility played out in one generation, and to look at its costs and implications. Beverly’s work has been politically controversial, examining racial and sexual stereotypes and executed in a style that critic Irving Sandler calls a merger of "personal confession and social commentary, photography and painting, and realism and expressionism."
The narrative arc of RAISING RENEE takes us from the time when Ethel and Renee shared a home in Greensboro, through Ethel’s illness and death, then to the pivotal moment in 2004 when Beverly brought Renee to live with her in Phoenix, Arizona. Viewers experience the consequences of Beverly’s promise to “raise” her sister, a forty-three-year-old woman/child, and the way it transforms her life at a time when she had hoped to focus on her burgeoning career and on finding a life partner.
Renee, who had lived with her mother from birth, undergoes an even greater transformation. At times she seems childlike; at others times she is remarkably competent and articulate. She, too, is an artist, creating a large output of potholders and crafts. In the fall of 2009, after living with Beverly for five years, an opportunity arose for her to live independently – something that was unthinkable when their mother was alive. How she responds to this challenge at age 50 is astonishing, and poses key questions about disability and ability.
In RAISING RENEE events unfold over six years with humor, drama and unexpected twists, investing the film with the scope of a nonfiction novel that's nearly impossible to put down. The film provides a deeply intimate view of a unique group of women, the tenacity of family bonds and the power of art to transform experience into something beyond words.