Beverly McIver’s life is a version of the classic Horatio Alger story: young girl grows up in the not-post-racial American South of the 1960s and 70s, fathered illegitimately, and brought up by a single mother on meager wages. She lives through the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, which occurs on the doorstep of her housing project. She starts dressing up as a clown, initially in classic clown white and then in blackface. Eventually our hero becomes an acclaimed painter, professor, and recipient of various awards and grants. Meanwhile, her family stays back in North Carolina, where her mother cares for Renee, Beverly’s mentally disabled sister. Mother and daughter live a quiet life, listening to gospel radio, going to church, and doing good deeds around the community.
The documentary Raising Renee follows McIver as she is partially forced back into an existence she thought she had left behind. After her mother dies in 2004, Beverly takes charge of her older sister, who functions at the level of a third grader and suffers from epilepsy. Beverly moves Renee to Arizona to live with her, and then back to their hometown of Greensboro after Beverly is offered a position at North Carolina Central University. Renee seems generally unfazed by the changes taking place in her life, so long as she is surrounded by the color pink and is able to make piles and piles of potholders, which she weaves out of cotton loops on a loom kit.
Beverly, to hear her tell it, is much more rattled. She is not afraid to be honest on camera, and she freely admits to feeling burdened by having to be Renee’s guardian, bemoaning a supposedly lost career as an artist in New York. She fancies herself a cosmopolitan specimen and clearly feels that her life is among the cultural elite in Manhattan and at Yaddo, not swinging by the In-N-Out Burger on the way home to pick up food for her sister. At times, she all but wishes Renee out of her life, but she is still content to cajole her into doing odd jobs around the house.
Of course, this version of events is just what we see onscreen, and unfortunately it’s too incomplete a picture. Although co-directors Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher put a great deal of legwork into making this film (they followed the McIver family from New York to North Carolina to Arizona and back over a period of six years), the final version of their story seems truncated: too little is seen of Beverly and Renee’s life together, especially since it’s ostensibly the main thrust of the film, and too much of it relies on narration from Beverly, at the expense of a deeper portrait of the sisters. Beverly speaks time and time again of the challenges of caring for Renee, and while there is almost certainly a great deal of truth in what she says, we never get a full sense of what their life together is like, difficult or not.
This is a shame, since most of Raising Renee’s high points come from watching Beverly and Renee interact with one another. Beverly often lightly teases her sister or else ignores her outright, and it’s fun to see Renee take no notice of this and soldier on. In turn, it’s moving to see how quietly grateful Renee is to Beverly for having taken her in. When Renee eventually moves away from Beverly and into an apartment complex for disabled people in Greensboro, Beverly clearly begins to miss Renee’s presence, which had been such an integral part of her life for the better part of a decade. It’s a ruefulness not shared by the viewer, since the film often gives the impression that Renee is hardly there at all.