Wilhemina’s War: Review

Wilhemina’s War
Directed by June Cross
Secret Daughters Productions

Reviewed by T.J. Banks

wilhemina-posterWhen we hear the words “woman warrior,” Joan of Arc or Boudicca comes to mind. We don’t necessarily think of a grandmother living in rural South Carolina. And that would be our mistake.

Wilhemina Dixon, the subject of June Cross’s documentary Wilhemina’s War, is a sharecropper’s daughter. She does odd jobs like weeding, picking peas, and taking care of people’s cattle. She is also the primary caregiver for her fifteen-year-old HIV-positive granddaughter Dayshal.

Although Mina has others dependent on her—a husband with cancer and a mother with Alzheimer’s disease—Dayshal is her main concern. She has mostly home-schooled the girl to protect her from bullying. She has educated herself about the disease, speaking out about it whenever possible and even organizing a local HIV-testing event. For Mina, the banner she’s carrying into battle is a very simple, very personal one: “AIDS is in my family.”

Dayshal was born with the virus. Her mother, Toni, is an individual with substance abuse problems dying of AIDS-related complications. “If it wasn’t for the Lord and my grandma, I don’t know what I would do in this life,” the teenager admits. “I call Mina ‘Mother’ because she raised me. My mama, Toni, I don’t feel comfortable calling her ‘Mother’ because she never did nothing for me.” Mina speaks matter-of-factly about the situation, saying that she hopes that her granddaughter never has children because she, Mina, won’t be there to help her with them.

The film brings home the fact that AIDS is “killing African-American women in numbers you would not believe,” says Shernell “Toni” Sells of the South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council. In 2009, AIDS was listed as the leading cause of death among young black women. South Carolina ranks No. 1 in the U.S. in terms of heterosexual transmission, which makes its cutting of funds for HIV/AIDS programs all the more unbelievable.

Cross weaves all of this into Mina and Dayshal’s story. She also makes use of some vintage photos and animation. The photos work—the animation doesn’t. Still, the latter plays a very small part in a film that hits you in the gut and leaves you questioning a state government that’s doing nothing…or less than nothing…for its HIV/AIDS population.

T.J. Banks is the author of Sketch People, A Time for Shadows, Catsong, Houdini, and other books. Catsong was the winner of the 2007 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award.