A determined woman brings ghetto life to film in 'Mama'

November 05, 1990|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

IN HER FIRST film, "Love Your Mama," Chicago filmmaker Ruby Oliver tracked a family's struggles against the riptides of poverty -- a project that relied more upon the drama of her own life than her film school courses.

The Baltimore Film Forum and Women in Film and Video of Maryland and D.C. will host the film's Baltimore premiere at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Baltimore Museum of Art. General admission is $6 and $5 for seniors, students and members of the film forum, the museum or WIFV. Oliver will speak before and after the screening.

Set in the Chicago ghetto, the film concerns a mother's determination to shepherd her family through crisis: Her alcoholic husband has quit his job and is seeing other women, her two sons are doing poorly at school and stealing cars, her daughter's dreams of going to college and opening a day-care center seem shattered when she discovers she is pregnant.

Hovering somewhere between a melodrama and a documentary tone, "Love Your Mama" attacks these problems with old-fashioned solutions: Faith, patience and determination.

Most remarkable is the story of the 50-year-old filmmaker who wrote, cast, directed and produced the film. After owning and operating day-care centers in Chicago for almost 25 years, Oliver decided to devote herself to screenwriting four years ago. She enrolled full time in college, received a bachelor of film and video degree with an emphasis in screenwriting, and finished the script which became her first feature film.

When she discovered how difficult it was to sell scripts, however, she decided to make "Love Your Mama" herself. Fortunately, she had the money.

Raised in the same Chicago ghetto she used in the film, Oliver grew up with the goal of owning her own nursery school. After graduating from high school, she joined the Navy for three years, then returned to Chicago to work for the post office. Carefully saving money, she was able to get a small business loan of $3,000 at the age of 23, which enabled her to open her first day-care center.

At first, Oliver continued working for the post office at night and operated Little Folks Cottage Kindergarten and Nursery School during the day. By the mid 1980s, however, she owned five day-care facilities in Chicago, all serving disadvantaged children. When she sold her businesses to start her new career, she was wealthy enough to finance "Love Your Mama" completely by herself. The film cost just under $1 million.

Oliver was never daunted by her lack of film knowledge or contacts.

"I spent 23 1/2 years in day care, so that has been my real interest," she says. "I don't know anything about this business. I'm not really familiar with filmmakers or styles. What you see on the screen is operating totally from me, without any influence . . . You're seeing exactly what the writer wrote. Directing was simply getting what I wrote."

As casting agent, Oliver held auditions for three months in 1988. She chose local, mostly unknown actors and selected all of the locations in Chicago. She began filming in July and finished five weeks later. Post production took another six months.

So far, the film has run in Chicago, Washington and Toronto. Oliver continues to search for a distributor from her new home in Santa Clarita, Calif.

"It's extremely difficult simply because big distributors require a format which I call the big V: Violence and vulgarity. They're looking for scripts which use high action and the 'F' word. They haven't done this kind of film for years.

"They will say to me 'Black people won't go to see this film, they're accustomed to more action.' I didn't make this film for black people, I made it for people. I'll hang in there. I might be called a pioneer in doing what I call a 'movie movie.' There's got to be somebody out there who wants to distribute it."

The most arresting character in the film is "Mama." Patient, long-suffering, she withstands frightening doses of pain and humiliation as well as the criticism of her children. She seems a type unknown to Hollywood.

Oliver says Mama is almost exactly like her own mother, Lucille Caldwell.

"This is a very personal film to me. The words Mama says are the same my own mother said. I always say they must have had a mama's school when I was growing up because that old lady just knew everything . . . During my mother's era, women were taught that you stay with the family. She was very tolerant of us. Mothers just had that special something, that moxie and insight . . . When something was wrong with the family, my mother could feel it."

Oliver believes her film can strengthen families who are going through difficult times.

"At each screening I have been told my film would be very good for people needing special instruction. Sometimes people need to be told they aren't the only ones going through something," she says. "No matter what the circumstances, a situation never becomes a problem until you accept it as such. If you treat it as a situation, you can overcome it.

"Mama's role with her daughter Leola in this film is to keep her motivated, to say 'I believe in you.'

"When I saw the completed movie, I recalled my own mother saying to me, 'You're so smart, you could do anything!' She got through to me. Thanks to her, I've been programmed to think I can do whatever I decide to do."

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