Family is the Focus of 1997 JFK Winner’s Documentary Film

Maureen Dezell | May 03, 2010
Family is the Focus of 1997 JFK Winner’s Documentary Film

Chico Colvard, winner of the 1997 John F. Kennedy Award and currently an adjunct instructor in law, race and media, is quickly gaining national attention with his award-winning documentary Family Affair.

An official selection of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival that had its world premiere there in January, Family Affair earned the kind of accolades most moviemakers dream of: Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris, for one, called it “astonishing” and “one of the most psychologically complex movies ever made about either racial identity or abuse of any kind.” Even more importantly, representatives from the new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), who shopped at Sundance for documentaries that “inspire and entertain,” snapped up rights to Family Affair for its planned Documentary Film Club, a multi-platform monthly “event” modeled on Oprah’s Book Club.

Family Affair is, by most accounts, a complex, haunting autobiographical story of incest and violence that rip families apart and the human impulses that stitch them crudely back together.

The son of a German-Jewish mother and an African-American father, Colvard grew up on army bases and in the segregated south. The family was living in Radcliff, Kentucky in 1978 when Colvard, a 10-year-old who “fantasized about being Chuck Connors in The Rifleman,” found his father’s army rifles and accidentally shot one of his sisters in the leg.

Convinced she would die from her injury, his sister told their mother and later the police that her father had been sexually abusing her and her two sisters for years.

Their father was arrested and sent to prison, where he served one year. His parents divorced and the family unraveled, the children sent to live in foster homes or with relatives who really didn’t want them.

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A lawyer, teacher, and filmmaker, Colvard launched his varied and successful career at UMass Boston in the mid-1990s.

After starting college at the University of Cincinnati, he transferred in 1993 to UMass Boston, where he says, “I had a sort of intellectual awakening.”

“I had great professors,” including Robert Johnson in Africana Studies and Lynne Tirrell in Philosophy, “who were extremely encouraging and inspiring, and who really pulled me in,” he says. 

He also took a number of film and video studies courses with John Gianvito, a director, writer, film curator and former UMass Boston instructor known most recently as director of Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, a cinematic retelling of Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States.

When Colvard graduated in 1997 he had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and political science and a minor in Africana Studies – and the JFK Award. One student each year wins the award, the highest honor the university bestows on an undergraduate at commencement, which is given in recognition of an exemplary academic record, service and overall contributions as a citizen of the university and the world.

He went from the harbor to the Heights to attend Boston College Law School, hoping to work in the field of juvenile justice after graduation.  Unfortunately, he says, “there is no money in the field,” and he couldn’t afford a job that didn’t allow him to pay back his law school loans.

Colvard went instead to Brown Rudnick, a prestigious Boston law firm, where he worked as a corporate litigator until he was laid off after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000.

Drawn to teaching, he happily returned to UMass Boston when Professor Robert Johnson offered him an opportunity to teach “Race in the American Legal System,” a course he took with Johnson almost a decade earlier.

He also taught for four years at Fenway High School, a singular Boston public school that functions as a “community of learners” and encourages close relationships among teachers and students.

Colvard was teaching humanities at Fenway and two courses at UMass Boston when he realized, five years ago, that he couldn’t make the movie he wanted to make if he continued to teach full time.

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Family Affair is much more than a film about incest, as it is sometimes described, notes Colvard. It is a story of how and why survivors cope and accommodate their abusers.

As a young adult, when Colvard came to recognize what his father had done to his sisters, he cut off relations with his father for 15 years.

To his surprise and distress, his sisters did not do the same. Instead, they stayed in regular touch, inviting the man who had abused them into their families, their homes, their lives. 

In 2002, Colvard went to Kentucky to spend Thanksgiving with his sisters. It was only after he arrived that he learned his father would be there as well.  He was horrified, he recalls, as he watched the man he hadn’t spoken to for 15 years walk through the door, greeted with warm hugs, laughter, and affection from his sisters, their families, and their neighbors. 

Colvard, who had imagined for years what he would say to “indict” his father if and when they met, was stunned into what felt like helpless silence. “All I could do was say ‘Hey, how are you?’ and sit behind my camcorder,” he says.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the beginning of the film,” says Colvard.

Distressed by his own response – his “failure” to challenge his father and rally the other Thanksgiving dinner guests behind him – he gradually came to realize that this episode distilled the story he wanted to tell.

“The story we see most often in the media is that a molester’s abuse is brought to light, then they are pushed to the margins of society, never to reconnect with their victims and survivors,” he says.

“The story no one talks about is about the motives, accommodations, and levels of forgiveness survivors make in order to maintain some semblance of family.”

To view the film’s trailer, visit www.c-linefilms.com/c_linefilms.html.

Tags: alumni , jfk award , the point

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