Nickcole Collins Pierre

To commemorate the Chicago International Film Festival’s 50th anniversary, Channel 11 is launching a series of monthly broadcasts of notable films that have screened at the festival over the years. Legacy (2000), which opens the series February 27 at 10 PM, seems a particularly apt choice because it’s a true Chicago story, one that plays out
against the long, sad history of the city’s housing authority. Director Tod Lending opens in September 1997 with the gun murder of 14-year-old Terrell Collins not far from the Henry Horner Homes in West Town, where he lived with his grandmother and five siblings; Terrell’s story is one we see over and over again on the ten o’clock news—an A student, bound for better things, shot dead in a pointless quarrel. “What people never get to see,” explains his cousin Nickcole, who narrates Legacy, “is how that pain can change a family over time.”

Remarkably, it changes them for the better. Over the next five years Lending follows the family’s progress as they slowly but steadily break the cycle of poverty and dependency they’ve known all their lives and claw their way out of public housing into safer and more stable home lives. Nickcole leads the charge—she’s the sort of self-reliant, relentlessly focused teenager who ekes out a future for herself through sheer force of will, earning a bachelor’s degree in early childhood development and marrying a former navy man. What’s really surprising, though, is how the two older generations also pull themselves together: Alaissa, Nickole’s mother, finds a career path for herself as a kindergarten teacher; Wanda, Terrell’s grieving mother, persuasively cleans herself up after years of crack addiction; and Dorothy, the matriarch of this impoverished and troubled clan, manages to qualify for a mortgage on a single-family home as the housing project is being demolished.

Whether the Collins family would have achieved all this without a documentary filmmaker tracking their progress, we’ll never know. But Legacy (which was nominated for an Oscar) reminds you how much power a movie can gain simply by giving voice to someone on the margins of society; though Lending is resolutely cold and truthful in assessing the family members and their challenges, he manages to turn a simple shot of Dorothy embracing Nickcole at her high school graduation—the sort of thing captured on thousands of videocams every June—into an emblem of pride, love, and yearning. Fourteen years after the documentary was completed, you’re tempted to wonder what’s happened to the family since then and whether the frayed social safety net, or their own despair, has dropped any of them back into their bleak past. “I want something bigger than that,” a clean and sober Wanda declares at the movie’s midpoint, and the fact that she’s widened her horizons even this far is reason for hope.