Sue’s Story

It was in a church basement on Drexel and 50th, in a small after-school program, where Melina Kolb first apprehended the generosity of Sue Duncan. Working as a volunteer tutor to balance her college work, Melina  saw mothers, who had once been students of Sue, bring their children daily, and she witnessed the children and Sue engaging on an almost mysterious level. “It was nothing like I have ever experienced before,” she wrote, describing her first day.

At some point, Melina began bringing her camera, and within the next year or so, she was compiling footage she had filmed while working at the Sue Duncan Children’s Center. The images captured Sue and her relationship with the children, and Sue’s commitment to helping the children grapple with the socioeconomic challenges that afflict the South Side. What began for Melina as an undergraduate project wound up as a short film, entitled “Sue’s Room,” that would go on to win first place in a contest by Current TV in 2006. She is now developing that short film into a feature length documentary, “Remember Me Sue,” a testament to Sue and her fifty-year tenure at the Center.

Sue’s teaching story began when she was asked to teach Bible school for two weeks to nine inner-city African American girls in a church building on 45th Street. She found none of the girls could read. So she began the Sue Duncan Children’s Center in 1961 to change that. After a half-century in service, she left the Center last year when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Though the idea to make a feature length documentary had long been in the back of Melina’s mind, at that moment Melina knew it was imperative. After graduating from the University of Chicago, Melina took a brief hiatus from filmmaking before enrolling at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. Later, she founded her own film production company. Throughout the years, however, she managed to stay closely involved with the Center and with Sue. However, the news of Sue’s diagnosis came as a shock.

Since then, the road to making her feature-length film has been marked by contingency, as are many grassroots documentaries, but also by encouragement. There was the Kickstarter fundraiser, which met its modest goal of fifteen thousand dollars. There was the flight to San Francisco to interview IBM CTO Kerrie Holley, who describes Sue as a second mother, and then the flight to North Carolina to interview eminent martial artist Michael Gordon–both Holley and Gordon attended the Center under Sue. Remembering her decision to make the movie near the end of 2011, Melina says, “I didn’t care how much this movie is costing me, I’m just going to do it.”

As an amalgam of interviews and cinéma vérité, the film relates some of the success stories of alumni from the 60s and 70s who went on to lead inspired careers, shown alongside footage of the children there now who have grown up with and within the Center since Melina first started working. Their stories are all understood through the impact of Sue.

Next up, Melina will be headed to DC to interview Sue’s son and US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. “I really, really want to get a shot of Arne Duncan playing basketball with Obama,” she says, as a gesture to the mythic quality of the sport on the South Side.  She views basketball, both for the Center and for Chicago’s South Side, as a huge influence in drawing kids off the street, and more broadly as a cultural staple of the city. Yet there is also a more personal story–apparently, Sue once played basketball at the Henry Crown gymnasium, and met several future board members of the Center there.

Much of the filming at the Center was simply Melina with her camera, and among the kids there, she remains a familiar face. She describes the feeling when she has captured something authentic on camera as “this little bell that goes off in your head.” One scene shows Sue revisiting the Center at a Christmas party in 2011, nearly four months after her departure. She walks in, at first inconspicuous. Someone notices, and a scattered chorus of “Sue!” follows. Some of the children run toward her, forming a circle around her. They then each embrace her. One attendee likens her entrance to that of NFL star Reggie Bush walking in.

Later in the scene, the onset of Sue’s disease becomes noticeable, particularly the decline of her short-term memory. At one point, she can’t remember the day of the week, before being told that it is Saturday. She responds with a wry laugh, smiles, and then says, “So there’s no Sue Duncan today.”

In discussing the thematic elements touched upon in the film, Melina speaks to the socioeconomic disparity apparent on the South Side, but she insists, “This is not an issue documentary.” She also explains that despite some of the successes of the Center’s alumni, not everyone has been so fortunate, which is a topic she hopes to address in the film.  She describes one scene from some of the earlier footage that shows Sue in discussion with a boy when he attended the Center.  Sue asks him about the number of African American men in prison in Chicago, and what he thinks about it. That same boy is now incarcerated.

For Sue, it was never just about reading and arithmetic–though that’s always been important–but also about helping the kids at the Center grapple with social realities.  She is characterized by the frankness she exudes–a trait that has informed her candid approach to teaching and engaging with people, especially with the children of the Center. “You ask her questions, but you just can’t avoid that she’s going to start asking you questions too,” Melina explains.

The trailer for the film, which was publicly released in April, opens with Sue’s own words: “We all are born with potential . . . [We] do what we can with the time we have.” For Sue, who came from a family of means, and devoted her career to non-profit education on the South Side, those words ring with special resonance.

Now, whenever Sue sees Melina, Sue asks, in characteristic fashion, “What are you going to do with your life?” Melina responds, “I’m going to make this movie about you, Sue.”