Beverly McIver lays something heavy on you in the opening minute of Raising Renee, a film about her family, her painting and the lines of force that cross between them. It's an uncomfortable truth that McIver tells, squirming a bit onscreen, begging the question "Why?"
I won't spoil McIver's revelation, but I will spoil this: Directors Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher deny you a direct answer to that question. Instead, the rest of this documentary about McIver taking in her developmentally disabled older sister Renee serves as an appropriately complex explanation of that truth, something more than a mere articulation could handle.
McIver lives in Durham and teaches art at North Carolina Central University. She was born in Greensboro just after the lunch counter sit-ins, and the murder of five anti-KKK protesters happened in front of her house in the projects when she was 17. She's now a nationally known painter, having had solo shows throughout the country. The North Carolina Museum of Art will show a retrospective of McIver's work this December.
Raising Renee begins as McIver's career is just taking off with her first New York solo show in 2003. Her mother Ethel fell gravely ill with cancer back in Greensboro, which brought up the question: When Mom passes away, who will take care of Renee? Mom asked Beverly to take Renee in, and Beverly said yes because she could hardly say no. But she was immediately overwhelmed, thinking about how she would bring her sister—who developmentally is akin to a third grader—into her home in Phoenix, and how her life as a painter and university professor could continue with this responsibility.
Jordan and Ascher were there to chronicle Renee's move and Beverly's struggle to accommodate her in her life, while also grieving their mother. As she narrates family memories, we see footage of Ethel hanging clothes and Renee making potholders intercut with Beverly's paintings of these scenes. The effect is of a visual stilling of mother and sister to a partially abstracted composition. There's both a pleasure and a coldness to the aesthetic transformation.
McIver's style imprints on your eye after just one painting. Based on snapshots that she projects, outlines and alters as she fills, her paintings are portraits of the people and places in her life. McIver's masterful technique and color choices make the paintings seem deceptively simple. Her art lies in her ability to render a photographically coherent overall image from decisive brushstrokes that retain their color integrity on the canvas. The closer your nose gets to the canvas, the more they go abstract.
But in life, the closer you get to emotions, memories and people, the more real they become. Sitting down to lunch with Renee after working in the studio, Beverly is clearly still in painting mode. She sighs and rolls her eyes at the camera in a mixture of frustration, amusement and perhaps even shame as she chastises Renee for forgetting to put drinks or napkins on the table. It's a tense, yet mundane moment.
Raising Renee takes us through their five years together, including a move back to North Carolina, eventually arriving at a triumphant—but also kind of lonely—place when Renee gets her own apartment in Greensboro. Along the way, we see Beverly come to better understand her painting through her life with Renee, and better understand herself and her family through her art. Honesty proves to be the medium in which McIver works, not paint, in the same way that a camera never lies.