Truly great documentaries are hard to come by. A great subject isn’t enough. It’s difficult to fashion a story as real-life tales seldom have a clear beginning or end. Harder still, the best of the lot really require that events are films as they happen. For this you need some combination of prior knowledge, coincidence or dumb luck. Due to an unfortunate tragedy, Tod S. Lending had a little of all three.
In 1994, Lending was making a different documentary for PBS. “No Time to Be a Child” explored how several young people overcame the violence and poverty of their communities. The director was in the apartment of Dorothy Jackson, grandmother and matriarch of three generations living on welfare in a Chicago project. This included her two daughters, Alaissa and Wanda, and their children. Lending awaited Dorothy’s grandson, Terrell Collins, for an interview. An emerging community leader, Terrell was expected to be the one to break the family out of this environment. It would never be as the teenager was shot and killed on the way home.
At this point, you might expect the grieving Collins family would never break free of poverty and dispair. Lending stuck around to find out and something surprising happened. Alaissa’s daughter, Nickole, was the first to fill the void. Finding a real support group in the Boys & Girls Club, she became the first in her family to graduate high school and go on to college. Her example inspired the rest of the family.
Alaissa found a permanent job and education and pulled the family off of welfare. Dorothy eventually moved out of the projects and into her own home. The real miracle, though, was Wanda. Terrell’s mother was a prostitute consumed by crack-addiction. Dorothy had to raise her children. As the other Collins women moved on, Wanda found the strength to do the same. She found God, graduated from a substance abuse program, found a job, and learned how to take care of her kids.
After five years of chronicling them, Lending has created an astounding document. The obstacles were enormous, but most of the family has found some peace off of welfare and out of the projects. The great exception is Jack. He was with his younger brother when he was killed. As a gang member, some may blamed the shooting on him, but not as much as Jack blames himself. Guilt, addiction, and poverty eat away at him. He does have one thing. As the women in his family demonstrate, despite any odds there’s always hope.