history of

After reading Christopher Funderburg's series The Whole History of My Life on this website numerous times, I was inspired to write about the films that I too "really, really love." I have a lot of favorite movies. Most of those movies have taught me a lot about cinema. But very few of them have actually touched me on a personal level and made me take a step back and rethink or question things about my life.

It's hard to find films that cater to a large, left-handed, architectural-drafting, historically black college-graduating, young black man with diabetes who received a kidney from his uncle. I don't like or relate to most modern films that concern black people. Kidney disease and architecture are seldom explored on the big screen, and there hasn't been an accurate portrayal of a historically black college in over two decades.

But every few years or so I revisit or discover an exceptional film that truly challenges me and forces me to reflect on my own life...

{the belly of an architect}
{fear x}
{school daze}
{u.s. go home}
{stranger than paradise}


apichatpong weerasethakul, 2010.

Nobody out there made you sick. You know that. The only person who can make you get sick is you, right? Whatever the sickness, if our immune system is damaged. it's because we have allowed it to be... through exactly the kind of anger you're showing us now. Does that make sense? Does anybody have a problem with that? - Peter, [SAFE].

The environmental sickness that Peter is speaking of in Todd Haynes' [SAFE] doesn't exactly apply to my specific medical issues (diabetes & kidney disease), but you could make a case that it still applies to my life more than almost any movie quote in the history of cinema.

I knew I was a diabetic but it didn't stop me from living an unhealthy lifestyle throughout college and my early 20's. I knew the risks but I acted as if I didn't have diabetes. No one forced me to eat unhealthily and live a sedentary lifestyle. No one told me to stop following up with my doctors or to stop checking my glucose levels. It was all my choice. And to this day I still don't know why I was so reckless. Over a decade ago I was 100 pounds heavier. In my early 20's I weighed well over 350 pounds. It's easy to say I was depressed because I ate & weighed so much but for the part I don't really remember being all that depressed. I was certainly unhappy with parts of my college experience (read part three of the whole history of my life) as well as my early professional career (read part one of the whole history of my life), but for the most part I remember having fun and enjoying my late teens and early/mid 20's. What Peter is saying in [SAFE] is true on some level. Negative thinking & depression does make it easier for the body to break down get sick. But at the end of day the only thing that's to blame for all of my health issues was my reckless & careless way of living. It wasn't depression. Just stupidity. And I use the word stupidity because - like I already said - it wasn't like I didn't know what could potentially happen. When I was first diagnosed with type two diabetes I was warned that if I didn't manage things correctly I might have to deal with things like organ failure. Whelp... six years after my diabetes diagnosis that prophecy came true and my kidneys began to fail.

The genesis of my kidney disease, and eventual kidney transplant, goes back to college. I've been a diabetic since my senior year of high school (1999). Although I was fairly active and participated in sports, I was still very overweight as a kid (I weighed 280lbs in the 10th grade). And diabetes is the kind of disease that's easier to get if it runs in your family. My father got it around 1990/1991 and various cousins, uncle & aunts (like my aunt Myrna who I wrote about in parts two & three of the whole history of my life) all had/have it as well. My addiction to starbursts and other various junk foods as a teenager, combined with my genetics, was pretty much a guarantee that I was going to get diabetes eventually. When I was first diagnosed I was still living under my parent's roof so it was regulated right away. We watched my dad struggle with it before me so by the time I got diabetes we knew what to do. Honestly, had I been diagnosed when I was away at college on my own I'd probably be blind, missing a limb or dead. But I was conditioned so well early on that when I went away to school, doing things like shooting insulin and checking my glucose levels on a regular basis became an integral part of my every day life. My diabetes was controlled so well that by late 2001 I was taken off of insulin. I still had to take actos (a diabetic medication that comes in the form of a pill) but still - no more insulin. That's the ultimate goal for a diabetic! I did it. But once I got taken off of insulin is when things started to slowly go down hill...

At the time I got my diabetes under control, I was young (20) and stupid. I equated being taken off of insulin as being "cured", so for the next few years I lived life as if I didn't have diabetes anymore. I ate a lot of ice cream, I consumed fast food all the time and was very sedentary. Surprisingly I made it to late 2005 without any issues.

I'm a huge insulin advocate at this point in my life. I honestly believe all diabetics should be prescribed insulin even if its at a low dosage. Diabetes is one of those diseases where you don't really see the effects right away in a lot of cases. You could be a diabetic and potentially eat a bowl of ice cream and nothing immediately bad would happen to your body. Because of this, along with how the stubborn human brain works, a lot of people with diabetes like to play with fire. I see it all the time and I'm sure you do to. Think about that relative, friend or co-worker that you know is a diabetic but sneaks candy bars or pieces of cake from time to time. "Don't they have diabetes?" you think to yourself.

That daily needle going in to your arm, stomach or ass cheek (the three places you're supposed to shoot insulin) acts a constant reminder as to not fuck around with your disease.

I fucked around and killed my kidneys.

In November of 2005 after a visit to the emergency room for a major headache that wouldn't go away for almost a week, the doctors discovered, through routine blood work, that my kidney's were only functioning at 40%. I had no idea. The exchange between the doctor and myself went something like this:

Endocrinologist: Are you aware your kidneys are only functioning at 40%?
Me: uh... no?

Long story short - I was going to need to a kidney transplant or go on dialysis. This came at an interesting time because my father was preparing to go on dialysis himself.

Oh... I guess I forgot to mention that around the same exact time my father was also diagnosed with kidney failure due to poor management of his diabetes. It's true. Like father like, like son. After being on dialysis for a year or so we came to discover that my uncle (William), my father's younger brother, was a match and could donate a kidney to my dad. Now, I imagine if you haven't gone through the process or know someone who has, you might think that once you find a donor who is a match that everything is resolved. Not necessarily. When you're a kidney donor you have to through a series of tests to make sure there are no oncoming diseases so you don't pass anything on to the organ recipient in the future. When my cousin Andrew discovered that I needed a kidney he was in prison at the time and he said that it would have taken months for them to determine if he was cleared to donate or not due to all the common diseases that get passed around in jail. Of course they ended up finding a tumor on one of my uncle's kidneys in one of the final tests. Luckily things didn't spread throughout his body but the kidney with the tumor on it had to be removed which meant he didn't have an extra kidney to spare. So now my father was back to square one and needed another donor.

While all this was going on my kidneys were still functioning but were being monitored regularly with the expectation that within less than two years I'd have to go on dialysis if I didn't find a donor. After my parents put the word out to family that I was going to need a kidney my other Uncle (Dennis) stepped up and offered his kidney like it was nothing. 9 years later I'm 100 pounds lighter and a whole lot healthier.

It should also be noted my uncle Dennis is an in-law. Not even a blood relative. He was married to my aunt/godmother. That act of kindness is just one example of the type of person he is. He saved my life like it was nothing.

I know some of you are asking yourself what any of this has to do with Uncle Boonmee but I assure you there is a connection. It's easy to forget that the man character in the film is dying of kidney disease. This is a movie that features scenes of red-eyed monkey ghosts and horny talking catfish so it's easy to forget the kidney angle.

Uncle Boonmee is such an important part of the whole history of my life that I don't even need to watch it anymore because I'm essentially living it (I haven't watched it in years and I didn't even need to re-watch any scenes to "brush up" on it before writing this piece). Much like Ray Carney did with John Cassavetes' Shadows, I've written about Boonmee on my own site on multiple occasions so it's kind of amazing that I still have anything new to say. But due to a recent unfortunate event (which I'll touch on shortly) I felt the need to get these thoughts off my chest almost as a form of therapy...

I'm the kind of person who anticipates certain movies so much, both mainstream & art-house, that I seek out as many reviews and spoilers as possible because I'm impatient. I'll even sometimes go so far as to seek out someone privately on a message board to find out about specific details in an upcoming movie because I cant wait to see it myself. I don't do this all the time but I do it enough where it has become a problem. But for some reason I didn't read a single review on Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 2010 Palme D'or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I was already a fan of his work (Tropical Malady and Syndromes & A Century) so I didn't need much convincing to see it. Apichatpong is also an architecture graduate like me so I've always felt a strange bond with his work even though he's never really directly addressed architecture or design in his work. 20 minutes in to Uncle Boonmee I felt an even stronger bond with Apichatpong as I came to discover that his film was partially about kidney disease & kidney failure. A lot of people wouldn't have known this but midway into the movie there's a stack of boxes off to the side that say Baxter all over them. For those that don't know, Baxter is the industry standard for dialysis bags. I know this because my parent's house used to be filled with them due to my father being on dialysis for many years. Seeing the word Baxter is an immediate red flag for anyone in the know about kidney-related issues...

Uncle Boonmee deals with everything from identity to political issues specific to Thailand but naturally it's the kidney disease aspect that I mostly care about. The basic plot of the movie deals with a man (Boonmee) dying of kidney disease who goes off to live his finals days secluded on his farm with his family. During his last days he contemplates his illness, discusses the past lives he believes he had, and is visited by the ghosts of his dead wife & son.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's own father died from renal failure so he knows this subject matter very well. What's interesting is this is something he avoided mentioning during the promotion of the film.

Take this excerpt from his 2010 interview for cinemascope magazine:

CINEMASCOPE: The character of Boonmee clearly echoes your father, who died of kidney failure and underwent dialysis, and you’ve said that certain scenes, such as the dining room and the bedroom scenes, are simulations of your father’s environment as he was dying. But what specifically about Boonmee is you?

APICHATPONG: It’s mostly a memory of when I grew up, and my childhood—not the region itself, but home, home in a more general sense. Mostly old TV in the ‘70s, shot on 16mm, and one-baht comic books that have a different landscape—the landscape of ghosts that coexist very well with the living. I was fascinated by that and tried to put some of that in. More than my other films, Uncle Boonmee is very much about cinema, that’s also why it’s personal. If you care to look, each reel of the film has a different style—acting style, lighting style, or cinematic references—but most of them reflect movies. I think that when you make a film about recollection and death, you have to consider that cinema is also dying—at least this kind of old cinema that nobody makes anymore.

Apichatpong completely sidesteps the question about his father. Isn't that strange?

But now matter how much he avoids questions concerning his father (an obvious source of inspiration for the character of Boonmee), Uncle Boonmee is still one of the most important & accurate portrayals of kidney disease on film. It's more than just the placement of the dialysis boxes in the background of certain shots (which is still a significant detail). Apichatpong captures the fatigue, the swollen feet, and the specific diet that comes along with kidney failure. I see my father in every and all scenes that show the tedious dialysis process just like I'm sure Apichatpong sees his father in those scenes.

Only recently have we gotten pretty good films like Beats, Rhymes & Life, Pound of Flesh, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance and Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance which all incorporate kidney disease and/or kidney transplantation in to their plots. Prior to that, kidney disease was either a minor subplot to the story (Shivers), a joke (Airplane), or it was an integral part of the story but was shown pretty inaccurately (Steel Magnolias). For those that don't remember, Julia Roberts' character in Steel Magnolias was suffering from kidney failure that was brought on by her diabetes (just like me and my dad). Towards the end of the movie she just drops dead. Not that people don't ever drop dead from kidney disease but when you're on a donor list and having your kidney function monitored by a doctor on a regular basis, like Roberts in Steel Magnolias, its highly unlikely that you're just going to drop dead like that.

Say what you want about direct to video action movies but Pound of Flesh gives a pretty accurate portrayal of kidney disease which is something a lot of high profile kidney-related films can't say.

In Pound of Flesh Jean Claude Van Damme plays an ex para-military agent who travels to the Philippines to give his dying niece one of his kidneys. But after a wild night of partying he wakes up in a bathtub of ice only to discover that one of his kidneys has been stolen. He then has 10 hours to get the kidney back so he can get it to his niece in time.

Pound of Flesh shines a light on certain technicalities of kidney disease & kidney transplantation that I have yet to see any other movie touch on. For example - this is the first movie I’ve seen that touches on the fact that kidney transplant recipients have to take medication for the rest of their lives.

And by the way, taking anti-rejection medication for life is not that bad. In fact it’s not bad at all. All you have to do is take 20-30 pills daily for life (depending on the dosage). If that honestly sounds like a hassle, imagine plugging your stomach, neck or arm in to a dialysis machine every day or every other day.

Pound of Flesh opened up a potential lane for more movies to follow, Think about the wild card factor in a zombie movie or disaster movie if a medication-dependent character runs out of pills. In today's movies where we see characters trapped somewhere and can’t go out or make a sound because they'll be eaten by zombies (Dawn Of The Dead, The Descent, Rec., etc), killed by vampire-like mutants (I Am Legend) or trapped on an elevator (Devil), we rarely seem to have a character in need of liver meds, hearts meds or kidney meds. The only semi-recent film to even kind of incorporate this in to the plot was Con-Air where Nicholas Cage’s friend needed insulin while on a hijacked plane. On television there was an early episode of Lost where one of the people stranded on the island needed an inhaler or she'd die from an asthma attack (similar to what happens towards the end of Signs). But that’s about it. Sure more television shows have been focusing on kidney transplantation (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Family Guy, American Dad), but never under the extreme urgencies that could sometimes come along with organ failure. Is Hollywood blind? Adding this kind of element to a thriller or horror movie would work on multiple levels. It would add realism to an otherwise unrealistic plot. Let’s face it – these days there seem to be more & more legitimately medication-dependent people in this world due to organ transplants than ever. Let’s say in 2017 that zombies really do attack and a group of people are stuck together in a shopping mall or an abandoned house. The odds of someone running out of or needing medication at some point in the near future is somewhat likely. This would add excitement to the story. Another monkey wrench thrown in to the spokes. Speaking from personal experience, the most kidney meds I keep on me on a regular day is two days worth. And for those of you asking why only two days worth; it’s because there aren’t any pill cases compact enough to hold the 24 pill a day supply I need without being a nuisance in my pockets. If that zombie attack hit right now, in 48 hours I'd be pretty screwed (if you go more than 48 hours without taking your meds your body will start to reject your kidney). Think about it for a second - if there was a character in need of meds in a short period of time, this adds a new mission to the story. A group of people would have to venture out in to danger to make it to the closest pharmacy to get the medication for the dying organ recipient before it’s too late. And this wouldn’t be a quick task because they’d have to fight their way behind the counter then proceed to read the labels on all the bottles to make sure they got the right meds (it would certainly suck if they did all that work only to bring back cold sore medication to a kidney transplant recipient). That would be a nail biter, wouldn’t it?

Pound of Flesh also shows that just because you’re a blood relative doesn’t always mean you’re going to be an automatic match. There’s a common belief that an immediate family member can donate a kidney with no problem but that’s not always the case. In the film, Van Damme’s brother isn’t even a match for his own daughter.

I feel like Pound of Flesh didn't intend to be so detail oriented in terms of kidney disease but it just kind of worked out that way.

But I'm not trying to downplay the seriousness of kidney disease by siting a Jean Claude Van Damme movie. It can absolutely kill you. Just look at the recent passing of Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest whose battle with diabetes & kidney disease was chronicled in Michael Rappaport's 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life. I think Phife Dawg's passing hurt & shocked a lot of people because the last time we saw him in the spotlight was at the end of Beats, Rhymes & Life after having received a kidney transplant. He looked happy & healthy so I think a lot of people thought he would be alright going forward.

Beats, Rhymes & Life serves as an unofficial guide, especially for young African American males and young diabetics, on the subject of health. Beyond the group's history and behind the scenes turmoil, a major part of this documentary focused on Phife Dawg's battle with his diabetes-induced kidney disease and the struggle to find a kidney donor. In the film Phife was kind of the epitome of that stubborn relative or friend we all know with diabetes who acts as if they don’t have it because you don’t usually see the effects of diabetes right away like you would other diseases. Diabetes is known as a silent or slow killer. But slow or not, diabetes can still kill. Quite a few diabetics put too much emphasis on the “slow” part of that phrase and less on the “killer” part. “I can eat this candy bar or drink this soda. It’s not going to kill me right away so I'll be fine.” But the problem is many diabetics (specifically type-2 diabetics like Phife Dawg) think like that way too much and often and end up going overboard.

When Phife Dawg passed away two years ago I immediately thought about my father. Not only did Phife Dawg & my father suffer from the same health issues but they were both from St. Albans Queens. A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory was also the first rap album my father allowed me to purchase when I was a kid so there's a lot of layers there.

Less than a year after Phife's death my father passed away in January of this year and it still hurts very much. His passing is essentially what inspired this piece.* We were very close and now that he's gone it feels like for the rest of my life I'm going to be hit with these daily waves of emotions that make it difficult to think or even focus.

Much like how many people thought Phife Dawg would be alright after his kidney transplant, I thought my father would eventually receive a kidney and live the rest of his life pain & fatigue free. He lived a full life but there were still more that he wanted to do and accomplish. No matter how bad his health was, my mother & I thought it would only be temporary partially because of how positive my father spoke. He would say thing like; “I'm going to get a kidney soon” or “When I get this kidney...”. He certainly had his days when his health got him down and he thought negatively but for the most part he always thought about the future which made my mother and I think the same way. We didn't associate death with my dad so when he died, which seemed very sudden, it came as a serious blow. And I didn't live with him and take care of him like my mother did so I the pain I'm feeling has to be even worse on her end because she dealt with it every single day. That's what breaks my heart more than anything right now. My mother dedicated & sacrificed so much of her life to take care of my father in his weakened state. And she was motivated to take care of my father because she thought it would be temporary. Life is not promised to anyone so you should never go under the assumption that everything is going to work out just because you do all the things you're supposed to, but my father's confidence & positive thinking was so contagious that we all thought he would get a kidney transplant so when he passed it hit us hard. It hits even harder because the relationship I had with my dad was a great one. I always knew my father and I had a good relationship but it wasn't until his funeral where Funderburg pulled me aside and expressed how he hoped to have a similar type of relationship with his son that my father had with me.** I don't know if there's a better compliment than that.

While my father never saw Uncle Boonmee I know he'd appreciate this piece being dedicated to him. He liked reading (and sometimes critiquing) my writing, he loved this site and he appreciated a good film.

~ MARCH 7, 2017 ~
* I started writing this piece back in 2014 but the tablet I wrote it on died before I had the chance to email myself the most recent version.
** I grew up surrounded by great fathers and from what I see Chris Funderburg is an excellent dad.