Out of the projects

Legacy documents family struggle against poverty

Sheer luck cannot be minimized in the development of a documentary film. When Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert began following the high school basketball careers of two young men in Chicago's inner city, they had no idea of the injuries and playoff races that would make Hoop Dreams suspenseful as well as illuminating. On the other hand, an uncountable number of projects never get off the ground because the odds break in the wrong direction.
Chance worked both with and against Tod S. Lending's Legacy, being screened Nov. 18 by the Peachtree International Film Society. In following three generations of African-American women in their struggle to escape poverty, Legacy can be intimate, truthful and unexpectedly uplifting. But while Legacy has plenty of heart and a story well worth telling, it's hampered by gaps in its narrative.
Legacy can be likened to Hoop Dreams without the hoops, although young narrator Nickcole Collins tells us, "You don't even have a dream on public aid." The teenager tells the story of five eventful years living inside and out of a Chicago housing project with her unemployed mother Lisa, her cocaine-addicted Aunt Wanda, Grandma Dorothy and numerous siblings and cousins.
At the outset, fortune struck the family in the most tragic way imaginable. Two hours after Dorothy was interviewed about life on welfare, Wanda's son Terrell was gunned down after a minor argument. An actual inner city honor student (not a tabloid euphemism a la Bonfire of the Vanities), Terrell's death brings outpourings of both terrible grief and community support. At the funeral, Legacy's cameras are placed just behind the casket, a vantage for capturing the wailing, despairing relatives with almost unbearable closeness.
Nickcole explains to us, "What people never get to see is how pain changes a family over time," and Legacy purports to tell that story. Over the next four years, the film shows the four women in their depressing efforts at survival, education and self-improvement. Wanda, a former prostitute, enters a drug treatment program, while Lisa finds it impossible to get a job and leave the welfare rolls while raising her children on her own.
The film finds Lisa at job fairs and trips to the welfare office, where blandly supportive workers can't compensate for the Orwellian rules for qualifying for day care when getting a job. Nickcole holds her mother equally responsible for not following up on job leads, saying that Lisa's attitude is: "I'll deal with it when I deal with it."
Legacy succinctly shows the arduousness of raising a family on welfare, which can be difficult to dramatize: One of Lisa's most dispiriting burdens is having to get up at 4 a.m. to wash clothes at the laundromat. The fathers of Wanda, Lisa and Dorothy's children are all long gone, but the film finds a positive male role model in Kenny, director of a Boys and Girls Club and afternoon employer of Nickcole. Later the film gives us a few minutes with Terrell's brother Jack, who's fallen in with gangs in the years after the killing, but unfortunately Lending doesn't follow up with him.
Too often, it feels that Nickcole's narration — clearly recorded at the end of the five years — is telling more than the film is showing, as if to impose a "plot" on the random events of life. When Lisa tries to sort out a problem with welfare workers, Nickcole eventually informs us that the bureaucrats were making excuses and talking down to her, which would have been difficult to discern otherwise.
The film also withholds important information. When Nickcole starts college, she mentions a previously unknown fiancee, whom we later learn she's known for years. Even stranger is the revelation, in the film's last half-hour, that after Terrell's murder, a benefactor offered Dorothy $10,000 as a down payment for a house. While we don't doubt her desperation over the years to leave the projects — when she eventually builds a new house, she moves in before the stairs are completed — it's a surprising complication.
Lending may have been simply unable to capture key events over the five years of filming, but he should be faulted for the choice of soundtrack. Most of Sheldon Mirowitz's score sounds like the background music of an insurance commercial and proves less eloquent than silence would have been in nearly every case.
Legacy finds things turn out better for the Collinses than the audience might expect early on: Wanda has a cap-and-gown graduation from her rehab program, just as Nickcole herself graduates from Catholic school. The film might take shortcuts in telling the story of the Collins women, but the story itself is undeniably worthy.