2000 Academy Award Winner, Best Documentary Short Subject
"When, exactly, are you too old to love your own grandchild?" asks Viola Dees.
Winner of an Academy Award in the Documentary Short category, Big Mama depicts a devoted grandmother's struggle to raise her orphaned grandson under the watchful eye of a complex and difficult social welfare system.
Big Mama follows 18 months in the lives of Viola Dees, an African American grandmother, and Walter, her grandson, as she tries to raise him alone in South Central Los Angeles. Dees has taken care of Walter since the age of four, when his father (Viola's son) died. Walter appears in the documentary as bright and sweetly loving to his grandmother, but also profoundly troubled, affected by his mother's prenatal drug intake. In the documentary, Walter is nine, and Dees is turning 90.
The film focuses on the continuous battle against age discrimination faced by Dees and many like her. While contending with her own declining health and a bureaucratic and legal system that continually threatens to force them apart, Dees fights the misconception that age supersedes one's ability to love and care for a child.
Big Mama candidly chronicles the family when life deals them several blows. Dees suffers a heart attack, provoking hostile behavior from Walter, who burns their house down when he sets a magazine ablaze in his room. When Walter is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, the doctors determine that Dees is no longer able to handle her grandson, and will not release him to her until she agrees to place him in long-term residential care. After a challenging search, Walter is accepted at an appropriate facility and thrives during his year there. However, when treatment is completed, social workers conclude that Dees is too frail to care for him, and Walter is returned to the foster care system.
Sadly, Viola Dees died at age 91. Weeks after her death, the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services sought an eleventh-hour block of this film's release, citing issues of Walter's privacy. The case was ultimately dismissed and the documentary went on to win an Academy Award.
The strong connection and boundless affection between these loved ones is captured in a compelling and compassionate manner in this portrait of an ever-increasing phenomenon - children raised by their grandparents.
Update: In the wake of his grandmother's death, Walter returned to the residential home for 10 months and was then moved into a foster home for six months. He's now in a group home and, given his behavioral problems, faces little chance of being placed with another foster family.