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Latifah powers arresting tale of family torn up by HIV, drugs

Queen Latifah stars as Ana Willis, a recovering drug addict who is an HIV-positive AIDS activist, in "Life Support." (Paul Schiraldi)

I approach topical dramas such as HBO's "Life Support," about HIV in the black community, with trepidation. Too often, they abandon specificity in order to push a big lesson, and they wind up having all the dramatic impact of a late-night public service announcement. We may learn something on the order of "Friends don't let friends drive drunk , " but we're not drawn out of our heads and inside a life, and maybe we're yawning a little bit.

So I was pleased and relieved by "Life Support," which premieres tonight at 8, because it is so rich in the texture of the daily lives of its HIV-positive characters. The movie was directed and co-written by Nelson George with a quiet, artful realism that gives every little gesture and silence weight. You feel as if you're right there in the room with the characters for a time, during which their true selves emerge slowly but surely. The strain of living with HIV is in the room, too; but it's only a piece of a larger psychological puzzle.

"Life Support" is reminiscent of two similarly vital HBO movies, "Angel" and "Everyday People," both of which were written and directed by George's co-writer, Jim McKay. The action is minimal, the characters are alone a lot , and the sounds of the urban environment -- in this case, Brooklyn -- are ever-present. There are moments in "Life Support" when George and McKay sacrifice their natural tone to deliver points -- the HIV support group scenes, for instance, whose members aren't characters so much as instruments for facts about HIV and safe sex. Such forced dialogue breaks the spell of an otherwise subtle movie about three generations of a family scarred by drugs and HIV.

Queen Latifah stars as Ana Willis, a recovering drug addict who is an HIV-positive AIDS activist. George based the character on his sister, but Latifah invests herself fully in the role, and she adds some interesting layers. Ana is passionate about her activism, but we can see that, despite her work educating others about HIV, she is tired and self-centered. Her oldest daughter, Kelly (played with note-perfect intensity by Rachel Nicks) is still bitter about her mother's drug use, but Ana has little sympathy. Ana also fails the compassion test regarding her mother (Anna Deavere Smith), who sacrificed her independence to care for Kelly while Ana was shooting cocaine.

The movie chronicles Ana's final growth spurt, as she helps Kelly try to rescue a troubled friend, played by Evan Ross, son of Diana. Ross is a convincing mess, and his real-life half sister, Tracee Ellis Ross, delivers a small but potent performance as his character's estranged sister. Wendell Pierce from "The Wire" also does concise work as Ana's husband, who is in recovery with her. But the movie belongs to Latifah, who makes Ana's journey both modest and heroic.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit