No one ever wants a hard life. There aren't many who yearn for obstacles, difficulties or daunting odds but rather strive to achieve a life that's comfortable and relatively free from trouble – an existence unmarred by tragedy, poverty or sorrow seems like a fleeting fantasy to the Collins family, as Tod Lending's intermittently searing Legacy opens.
Originally shown on Cinemax as part of their "Reel Life" documentary series, Legacy was also nominated for an Academy Award in 2001. Critically acclaimed, Lending's film nevertheless can't quite recover from its shattering opening sequence detailing the senseless murder of narrator Nickcole Collins's 14-year-old cousin Terrell, who was shot dead blocks from his Chicago apartment. Galvanized by the sudden, tragic death, the Collins family rises up, determined to better themselves and escape from the harrowing Chicago projects they call home. A sobering examination of the American dream and how it doesn't always present itself willingly, Legacy follows the Collins family over the course of five years, through miserable lows and ecstatic highs.
Despite the inherent drama and fleeting, heartwrenching scenes – perhaps the most difficult sequence is the family singing "Happy Birthday" around Terrell's rain-streaked headstone three years after his death – Lending can't quite sustain the jolt that the film's beginning delivers. Ostensibly, Terrell's shocking death is the film's focal point, but the erstwhile narrative drifts not long after everyone is introduced. Guilt and missed opportunities haunt the family, whether it be Nickcole's mother, whose dependency on welfare has worn her down, or her aunt, whose crippling drug addiction has rendered her an unfit mother and prostitute. Legacy chronicles the tentative steps the family takes, but time and again, the most powerful elements of Lending's film deal immediately with Terrell's death, rather than any of the family's changes.The director's tenacity in hanging with this family, whose luck and focus on the future help rescue them from complete despair, is admirable, but the film peters out long before the credits roll. Nevertheless, Legacy is gripping enough to warrant a cursory viewing.
Shot on video, Legacy will never be reference material, but then, it isn't meant to be. Presented in an acceptable 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer, the film is available on DVD as originally broadcast on Cinemax. The odd bit of video noise, along with a few instances of blow-out, mar an otherwise serviceable visual presentation.
Legacy is primarily concerned with dialogue, not swooping action scenes, so the provided Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack gets the job done; everyone who appears on camera is heard clearly and free of distortion or drop-out. Sheldon Mirowitz's slightly overwrought score is also reproduced cleanly.
The included supplemental material helps further flesh out Legacy from in front of and behind the camera: director Lending sits for a seven minute, 38 second with a Chicago TV station while the 11 minute, 45 second featurette "Legacy: Three Years Later," catches up with the Collins family and also gets their reactions to the finished film. Perhaps the most sobering extra is the two minute, 33 second jailhouse interview with O'Brian McGee, the young man who shot and killed Terrell. A 30-second trailer, filmmaker biography and trailers for Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill finish off the disc.
The Collins family are tough, loving and beset by problems that might destroy those with less grit and pluck – Tod Lending's acclaimed documentary Legacy documents five years in the lives of this Chicago clan, all of whom struggle to achieve success and make something of their lives. It's a poignant, if overly long, work that merits a once-over for fans of documentaries. Rent it.