The Moving Images of an Urban Auteur


By Thane Peterson One of the most memorable documentary films I've ever seen will be broadcast this week. On the evening of Nov. 29, an array of U.S. Public Television stations will broadcast Legacy, an Oscar finalist two years ago.

Participating stations include those in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis and across Maryland. Some PBS stations will feature the film on other days, so check your local listings.

NOT TO BE MISSED. In my opinion, every American should see this film at least once. It tracks the struggle of a poor, inner-city Chicago family to come to terms with the 1994 murder of its guiding light, a remarkable 14-year-old boy called Terrell Collins. Born to a crack-addicted prostitute mother, the boy nonetheless developed into a distinguished student, a natural leader, and an all-around good kid. His community expected that he would do great things with his life.

The story of the aftermath of Terrell's senseless murder will almost certainly influence your conceptions of the reality of race and poverty in America, no matter what your politics.

From its starting point of tragedy, the tale evolves into one of hope and redemption. Terrell's mother, Wanda, and his aunt, Alaissa, have 10 children between them by various men. The matriarch, Terrell's grandmother, Dorothy, is raising Wanda's six children after Wanda briefly abandoned Terrell -- her second child -- to hit the streets. Yet over the course of the five years covered by the film, the family rights itself, making astonishing progress in the face of crushing adversity.

A lot has happened since I first wrote about the film (see BW Online, 6/20/00, "A Legacy You Won't Soon Forget"). In addition to its Oscar nomination, it has been shown on HBO and broadcast in Belgium, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Brazil, Israel, Korea, and Lithuania.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT. A bill named for the film was proposed in Congress to create low-income housing for grandparents raising children, but wasn't passed. Meanwhile, with backing by organizations such as the United Way, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Interdenominational Theological Center, and a consortium of black churches, Legacy is used in hundreds of seminars, workshops, and outreach programs to aid the poor.

Wanda, Dorothy, and other members of the Collins family often attend screenings of the movie and talk with participants in the workshops. You can order a copy from a San Francisco outfit called California Newsreel at 415 621-6196.

Recently, I talked with Tod Lending, the Chicago-based filmmaker who made Legacy and whose specialty is documenting poverty and privation in America's inner cities. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Q: Let's go back to the day in 1994 when you first started filming Legacy. What happened that day?

A: I was producing a documentary series for PBS called No Time to Be a Child. I was looking at kids growing up in different situations of violence. Terrell Collins was one of the kids I really wanted to follow -- a straight-A student with a scholarship to a private high school. The day I began filming, I did an interview with his grandma and was supposed to interview Terrell the next day.

Two hours after my interview with his grandma, he was shot and killed in the street by a 17-year-old kid -- a skinny little kid with a learning disability who had been picked on most of his life. He and Terrell had gotten into an argument the week before on the basketball court. So I met the family through Terrell. After his death, rather than abandon the project, I decided to stick with them to see how they would deal with the loss.

Q: And you ended up filming for five years?

A: Yes -- 1994 through 1999.

Q: Tell me a little about yourself.

A: I grew up in Evanston, just north of Chicago. My dad was an illustrator and got me into still photography, which is what led me into film making. I'm 43, married, and have a 7-year-old daughter. I'm a Jew who married an Iranian. When we got married, we said that hopefully, it was the beginning of the Middle East peace process. It wasn't, unfortunately.

Q: How many films have you made?

A: That's tough to answer. I try to distinguish between what I call an "assignment film" vs. a film that I generated myself. Of the films I generated, raised the funds for and produced, there are five. But I did numerous assignment works before that. By the time I was about 30, I was very frustrated with the kind of assignments I was getting and the short time I had to do them.

[I came back to] Chicago, started my own company, and raised money through foundations and broadcasters. That's when I got into what I call the "longitudinal documentary," which is my passion now -- following people for a long period of time.

Q: What has happened to the family since Legacy came out?

A: I did a ten-minute follow-up on the family that is on the PBS Web site.

Wanda had remained clean all the way up until last summer. She had her first relapse for about a week. Her sister found her, she went right into treatment, was OK for a couple of weeks, had another small relapse, and went back into treatment. Now, she has been clean again and working full time for a few months.

Alaissa [Terrell's aunt] is still a kindergarten teacher. Nicki [Terrell's cousin Nickole] is doing wonderfully. She's married, has a beautiful little 1-year-old girl, she's teaching third grade full time and her husband is working and going to university. [Terrell's older brother] Jack is still struggling. [Terrell's grandmother] Dorothy is still in her home and still teaching at the Catholic school.

Q: What was it like being nominated for an Oscar, and how did the people in Legacy feel about it?

A: It was a cross between a carnival, a freak show, a fun, wild party, a huge ego stroke. I was able to get the family tickets and it was wonderful having them with me. They did the whole thing -- the limo ride, the walk along the red carpet.

We just had the time of our lives. It was so joyous to be able to share that with them and to have them be a part of it. Because it's their story so they should enjoy some of that recognition. I just wish we had won.

Q: Have you made any money off the film?

A: No. I haven't gone into the black with it yet. Usually the films I do are funded up front. But this one was done on a lark. (The production costs were all deferred.) My agreement with the family is that once I get all that paid off, I'll share any money [the film makes] with them. I told them it's very rare that a documentary makes a profit.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A three-year prison-release project called Redemption. I'm following two guys out of prison in Baltimore who are part of the Baltimore reentry program.... They both have been in [prison] ever since they were 17. Never out more than six months. So, they've spent much more time inside prison than on the outside. I'm going to look at what they face when they come out. How do they readjust?

The other project I'm doing is kind of an offshoot from Redemption. I'm following a 16-year-old girl who is in prison right now in a youth-detention center. She's bipolar and comes from a very violent background. I'm looking at how they deal therapeutically with her mental disease along with the violence she grew up with.

I'm following her for six months in prison before she's released, and then I'll follow her for two years after she's released. She also is very bright and very interesting. I try to find people I can identify with, and where I feel like a friendship can develop. Because a film like this is a long stretch. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online


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