Saturday, March 10
The trouble with making a cautionary film about a social problem is that it can get preachy and start to look like an after-school special. What's good about "Life Support" is that it doesn't. It makes its points within the context of a stirring family drama.
This is a low-key but powerful film about one woman's crusade to keep other women in her black Brooklyn community from getting HIV, just as she did a decade earlier. By focusing on her life and her efforts, writer-director Nelson George camouflages the considerable amount of practical information he provides.
Although AIDS is everyone's enemy, it has been showing up disproportionately among black people. Lately, black women are 20 times more likely than white women to get AIDS, according to HBO, which plans a public service campaign with "Life Support" as the centerpiece.
George based this story on his sister, Andrea Williams, who got AIDS from her husband, a drug addict at the time. Since then, she has become an AIDS outreach worker and a familiar sight on the sidewalks of Bedford-Stuyvesant, pulling her little suitcase filled with condoms and literature.
Queen Latifah, with only a month to prepare for the role, is nonetheless masterful as Ana, the character based on Andrea. She's a tireless crusader, but Ana is no Mother Teresa. A former drug addict, Ana still wrestles with guilt, blame and anger.
Deep down, she still resents her husband, Slick (Wendell Pierce), for giving her AIDS. And she regrets that her own behavior in those drug-addicted years forced her to give up custody of her eldest daughter, Kelly (Rachel Nicks), to her mother, Lucille (Anna Deavere Smith), to keep the girl out of the social welfare system. Now Lucille plans to sell her house in Brooklyn and move away. That means Kelly, a high school student who never forgave her mother for her addiction, must decide whether to stay in Brooklyn or move along with her grandmother.
The film is candid, compassionate and perhaps never more honest than in the AIDS support group scenes. Many of the women play themselves, and much of the dialogue is unscripted, creating a particularly effective intersection between art and life.
There are strong acting performances from top to bottom, and that includes Nicks, hired for the tricky part right out of Juilliard. Evan Ross and Tracee Ellis Ross, both offspring of Diana Ross, also acquit themselves well in smaller roles. Location shooting in Brooklyn helped give the telefilm an authentic look, as did George's knack for framing his shots to get to the truth of the scene.
A Foxx/King production in association with Urban Romances,
Shelby Stone Prods. and Flavor Unit Films
Credits: Executive producers: Jamie Foxx, Marcus King, Queen Latifah, Shakim Compere, Shelby Stone, Jaime Rucker King; Producer: Mark A. Baker; Director: Nelson George; Teleplay: Nelson George, Jim McKay, Hannah Weyer; Director of photography: Uta Briesewitz; Production designer: Loren Weeks; Editor: Mary Jo Markey; Music: Stuart Matthewman; Casting: Aleta Chappelle. Cast: Ana Wallace: Queen Latifah; Lucille: Anna Deavere Smith; Slick: Wendell Pierce; Kelly: Rachel Nicks; Amare: Evan Ross; Michael: Darrin Dewitt Henson; Sandra: Gloria Reuben; Ness: Tony Rock; Tanya: Tracee Ellis Ross; Kim: Rayelle Parker.