Disability and Place in ‘Give Me Liberty’

A thrillingly chaotic portrait of a day in the lives of diverse characters in a Midwestern city.

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Still: ‘Give Me Liberty’, 2019, Music Box Films

A journey of 24 hours, Give Me Liberty provides us in-depth portraits of characters during a single day in their lives. It quickly sketches relationships, intentions, and goals while drafting a picture of populations living in a particular place and time. In this case, it is a place and time that makes day to day life for elderly and disabled folks extremely challenging.

The film is framed by our protagonist Vic (Chris Galust) sitting at the bedside of one of his friends and clients, listening to him talk about life and give advice. The man talks briefly about the physical disability that made him bed and chair ridden at a young age, but mostly the conversation is about love and living. This will set the tone for the film, which centers on conversations about ability, but does not use disability as points to move the plot forward. Instead characters exist, interact, and ultimately, love, because of who they are, even when this takes into account how they are able to physically interact with the world.

25 year old Vic lives with his grandfather in a one bedroom apartment and drives a van transporting disabled folks to their jobs and other locations. He is awoken by an alarm and immediately wakes up his grandfather, who has a funeral that day for a woman in the building he was dating. After getting him up, he visits the home of his first client and his workday begins.

Chronically late to pick up the next person, Vic runs into trouble when he discovers his grandfather and friends have been stranded by a missing van. After loading them and an unexpected recent arrival from Russia, Dima (Maxim Stoyanov), nothing goes to plan. Eventually he picks up our secondary protagonist Tracy (Lauren ‘Lolo’ Spencer), a wheelchair bound woman with ALS.

So often in film we never find out what disabled characters do with their time and how they fit into the fabric of family and friends. In this case, reveals come suddenly and subtly. While stuck in the van Vic did not open for her, she pulls out a folder and begins going over the day’s agenda for the other passenger, Steve (Steve Wolski). Here it is revealed that Steve is Tracy’s client and she’s been setting up job interviews for him. Her trip is for work and to support a population not shown in movies about cities. She is also in the midst of moving out of her home and in with a boyfriend who may not be ready to cohabitate.

Viewers may have assumed that Tracy is living with her mother and grandmother out of personal necessity. After all, how could she possibly live on her own when she requires the use of a motorized wheelchair to get around? The first scene we see Tracy in, she is stuck in her home because a mattress has been halfway loaded into the doorway. Her family members are either unwilling or unable to move the mattress, and Vic is commanded to help. But Give Me Liberty sets up our assumptions to be knocked down. Tracy with her wheelchair is no exception.

After a blow out fight with her boyfriend and returning to her house with a box she packed of her things, it’s revealed that Tracy in fact is the breadwinner for their home. In conversation to Vic she also admits there are other places she has thought of living, places that may be easier for her, but she has chosen to stay to support her family.

Throughout the film, physical barriers crop up for protagonist Tracy. They are not major plot points, but instead lay out the day to day thoughtlessness the populations portrayed in this film face. There are also moments where characters could overcome a physical obstacle, but choose not to. The point always being that they should not have to: their existence should have been taken into account.

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Still: ‘Give Me Liberty’, 2019, Music Box Films

Introducing the film in Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, writer and producer Alice Austen said the film’s script was called “Unmarketable… Uncastable… We’ll never get into Sundance.” (The film was featured at Sundance in 2018.) The casting of Tracy was a bit contentious as well. Austen explained, “We had a lot of pressure to cast an actor without a disability in the role,” but ultimately director Mikhanovsky and Austen were able to cast Spencer, an actress and influencer with ALS.

Set against the backdrop of an unexplained protest in Milwaukee, WI, Give Me Liberty intersects local politics, under served populations, and larger societal issues. The protest may not be explained directly, but later in the film it is shown to be taking place outside of a police station. In truth, the exact reason for the protest is not important because its role in this film is as a barrier and at times antagonist to our main characters. In other circumstances the status of all three may have been the subject of a protest: an immigrant, a physically disabled black woman, and a second generation immigrant blue collar worker.

Director Kirill Mikhanovsky and writer Alice Austen admit that the film was not always about three characters making their way in a van through the Milwaukee streets. Originally a gangster movie, or possible Sci Fi concept, the creators still consider Milwaukee integral to the final story.

That context is of interest. Tracy lives in a multigenerational household where the only male present is her younger brother, who just turned 17. Later in the film that brother is arrested for somewhat unclear activities during the protests. There have been many protests in the last 5 years in Milwaukee, many of them focusing on communities like the one Tracy and her family live in.

Milwaukee is not only one of the most segregated cities in the United States, it is also one of the most racially unjust when it comes to incarceration, employment, and housing. The documentary Milwaukee 53206 discussed the Northern zip code in Milwaukee county that has up to 62% of its black male population incarcerated. Additionally, black men are the most common victims of murder in Milwaukee.

It is also the birthplace of Mothers for Justice United, founded by Maria Hamilton. In 2014, her son Dontre was shot and killed by Milwaukee Police Officer Christopher Manney. The resulting organization has created advocacy nationwide through a network of mothers who have lost their children to police and vigilante violence.

Public transit in Milwaukee, like any major city, is a point of constant contention. Tax dollars are not effectively employed to expand systems that serve populations on the North and East sides of town shown in the film, and buses can not cover the commuting population it needs to. Vans, which provide immediately accessible options, are not viable when they cannot be on time, and carry minimal passengers.

This makes the way Give Me Liberty carefully portrays its characters all the more important. The film had immense local support and in turn invested directly back into the community. The African American Women’s Center on Milwaukee’s Westside donated space to hold auditions. Much of the film takes place in the Eisenhower Center, a vocational training center for disabled folks, and features their employees. These are locations that someone growing up in Milwaukee would never have imagined would be featured in a film, much less one sent to international film festivals.

While I would hardly call it a love letter to my home town, Give Me Liberty is a portrait of a city that is beloved to many through the lens of three key characters who deserved to have their stories told before 2019.

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