More Than Words Can Say
Jennifer Dworkin's vivid documentary Love & Diane is a story of two generations of "welfare moms" and three generations (at least) of poverty, self-hatred, child neglect, rage, and injured potential. As such, it's a cure for opportunistic cant from both sides of the legislative aisle. Anyone who believes that people are born onto a level playing field needs to take a walk in the slides of Love Hinson: abandoned daughter of a crack-addicted mother, Diane Hazzard, who was herself deserted at age three by her alcoholic mother. And anyone who believes that the state is the best minder of the poor should see what happens to Love and her son Donyeah when social services again intervene. It's bracing to see a film that states, simply, These things happened in our world. The plain facts of Love & Diane are these: History matters. The white middle class experience is not the poor black experience. Pain can be unforgiving. Families are complicated beings.
Dworkin's film doesn't shrink from acknowledging competing truths, either. Diane eventually beat her addiction and recovered her six children from the foster and group homes into which they had been splintered. She rightly feels a sense of triumph and hope. Her children, who have missed her presence for something like seven years, are not grateful enough. The oldest, Charles, committed suicide before Dworkin met the family, three years after their reunion. Love, now 18, was a serial runaway before and after being returned to Diane: She contracted HIV during one homeless stint. Love feels at once depressed, furious, and guilty: It was her confession at school that brought Diane's children into the foster care system.
All of this sounds intense, and it is. Diane and her children grant Dworkin an enormous amount of access, physical and otherwise. With the help of her videographers Tsuyoshi Kimoto and Doug Block, Dworkin records family tears, celebrations, arguments, and confessions--very rarely capturing anything that looks like "performance." The film focuses most on Love and Diane's painful reconnections. Both women are articulate, passionate people. Schooled in therapy, they know how to describe what they feel and often why they're feeling it. But, in another myth-busting truth, the "talking cure" doesn't help, especially not Love; it hasn't eased the hurt of abandonment. When Donyeah is taken away from Love, she is again ordered into therapy. If it feels to her like forced ass-kissing, it strikes me as inadvertent shaming--with the unfortunate consequence of turning the shards of Love's past into rote therapyspeak recital. Apparently she's not even allowed to own her memories.
Dworkin adds another layer of intelligent commentary. She understands the irony of making a talky film about the failure of talking. A final, silent shot of Love's face subtly undermines the uplifting slant of the film's last third. Dworkin "interviews" Diane's sullen 13-year-old son Willie by observing his body language. He's heartbreaking--a cold gun of prickly need. Voiceovers and impressionistic footage are often as compelling as the live scenes, and they give the viewer a time-out from the intensity of frustrated interaction. Other scenes are silent or nearly so: In one, Donyeah's affectionate foster mother weeps as she packs up his belongings; he tries to pat away her tears. (Thus, without language, Dworkin balances the family's negative foster care experiences.)
Clearly, Love & Diane exposes the repetitive nature of the family's crises: a desire for babies who will ostensibly love the loveless; inevitable disappointment; the use of drugs or alcohol to numb loneliness; neglect; state intervention; another mother/child separation. But Dworkin also points out interruptions in the cycle: a savvy lawyer helping Love; Diane blossoming through a job training program; Love parenting Donyeah with boyfriend Courtney (not his father). I wish Dworkin had explored the last of these a little more, as Courtney's continuing presence troubles yet another urban black American stereotype. And some socioeconomic context would've deepened the story. How many children are reunited with families after foster or group care? What is the recidivism rate? How much does poverty beget child neglect? While Dworkin's attachment to the family gives the film a riveting intimacy, occasionally it suffocates.
That said, I'd still call Love & Diane the strongest film I've seen this year. I realize that most of us live lives full of frustration and struggle, and the last thing we may want to do on a rare night out is witness other people's strife--especially when there's no safely happy ending. (What of Donyeah, the toddler who happily pitches books into the fish tank?) Love's ongoing complaint here is that no one knows what she knows, no one has stood where she stands. Why are they (or we) always telling her what to do, who to be? All I can say in response is that listening to Love, watching her, learning from her, is a piercing pleasure.
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