Darius, his Wheelchair and a Bunch of Dudes in a RV Will Change Your Life

BlogHer Original Post

It is difficult to write about the acclaimed, award winning documentary "Darius Goes West" without using phrases that have become cliche or superlatives that are tossed about casually and excessively these days. That said, I will tell you that this is a film that is deeply moving and offers profound, life changing lessons.

The film was made by novice film makers on a low budget and it shows. It is not the most technically sophisticated piece of movie making you will ever see but I am certain that it is a piece of art that will remain with me.

Although there are several well-worn narrative tropes employed and films that come quickly to mind as references for the story making, at its core, Darius Goes West is a road trip. And as is the case with road trip stories, it is not the destination that makes the trip worth watching but rather the journey which is compelling.

The film documents the trip that then 15 year-old disability rights activist Darius Weems takes to Los Angeles in hopes of winning a spot on MTV's "Pimp My Ride" in order to get his wheelchair decked out in all the finery rapper, Xzibit and car shop, West Coast Customs have to offer.

The film is several years old now and you might remember the outcome of the story from coverage at the time. I won't reveal it to you except to say that it does not matter. What Darius Weems has to teach does not come from getting his wheelchair pimped or not.

One of the reasons why this film is important is the reason why Darius wants to appear on "Pimp My Ride." Darius has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Watching the film we learn that DMD is the number one genetic killer of children, is 100% fatal (usually in the teens and twenties like Darius' brother Mario who died at the age of 19) and afflicts 1 in 3,500 boys worldwide. Like me, I would bet you had no idea about that shocking statistic and that the first thing the words "Muscular Dystrophy" bring to mind are "Jerry Lewis." Since 1966, Jerry Lewis has raised more than a billion dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association through his annual Labor Day Telethon. And while this is an incredible feat, the generation of kids currently living and dying with DMD don't know Jerry Lewis.

In addition to raising awareness about the disease among the age group most affected by it, the journey shows us the reality of the need for access with comparisons between the Carlsbad Caverns (wheelchair accessible) and the St. Louis Arch (not wheelchair accessible). One of Darius' road trip companions realizes that not only does this mean that he cannot share this experience on their trip, he also would not be able to have Darius to his home when they returned because his home is not accessible. Accessibility is not important just for the disabled but also for the able bodied who simply want to have the pleasure of the company of their friends.

"Darius Goes West" is the story of the road trip of a group of young men. As such it has more than its fair share of juvenile, bro bonding moments to which I could not relate. However, they serve to make plain that none of the several white, presumably more well off, dudes who accompany Darius who is poor and black (he and his mother survive on disability payments as she is blind and live in a housing project) is there as suffering caregivers (though they are caregivers it is not their sole role nor are they suffering), on a pity project or to burnish feelings of do-gooding nobility. There are there because Darius is witty, talented, fun, engaging and one of the guys. Period.

The most profound lesson I took from "Darius Goes West" is that purpose is what makes life joyful. One of the many ways in which this lesson is offered is subtle. The rented RV they drive across country breaks down along the way and they fall behind schedule. This is, of course, frustrating and is an example of the kinds of annoyances we each face in our daily lives. However, several things come from the frustration. First, there is a woman with a Chihuahua who puts its front paws together while she holds the dog and it appears to "pray." It's a tiny, sweet gesture and Darius speculates that it was the Chihuahua's prayers that eventually set them back on the road. It is a moment and a kindness that would not have been noticed had they not broken down. Second, the road trippers are able to survive the frustration and delay because of their friendship and bond. Much research is coming about that tells us strong bonds and relationships are crucial to happiness. This moment serves as a powerful demonstration of that truth. Third, they find a way to deal with the problems and get them fixed because they have a goal, a focus, a purpose that requires them to get rolling once again. Without the destination the temptation might have been great to give in to the frustration and get stuck there rather than return to the journey. Alert: metaphor for life, here :)

Darius has a new goal. He seeks to sell one million copies of the DVD by his birthday, September 27, 2009. For $20 you can help him reach that goal. Of that $20, $17 goes to support research into a cure for DMD (which scientists believe will be realized soon) and $3 covers administrative costs and the costs of making additional DVDs. There is also a modified version specifically for showing in schools and other products available to support the cause. I would strongly encourage you to purchase and watch a copy and to share it with the kids in your life. They will enjoy it while learning and it's fun to be a sneaky grownup like that.

I received a screening copy of "Darius Goes West" to prepare for this post. After watching it I went to DariusGoesWest.org and donated $20 to "buy" the screening copy. The value of what I received from watching the movie was far greater.

Have you seen "Darius Goes West?" What was your reaction?

Darius Goes West: The Vehicle

Related Reading:

(Please note some links contain information about outcome of Darius' MTV quest)

Darius Weems and filmmaker Logan Smalley named TED Fellows

Darius Weems wins $10,000 the Do Something Awards

Jeff Chu at Fast Company: Pimping His Ride--and the Push to Cure a Fatal Disease

At the Do Something awards, Weems got an additional prize to remind him that the work he has started will continue even if he can't be on the road himself. MTV announced that it will air his movie on MTV2 and MTVu.

Caitlin Hagan at Paging Dr. Gupta: Darius Goes West

Recently I had the honor of watching “Darius Goes West” with Darius, who is now 19 years old, film director Logan Smalley, and producer Daniel Epting. Their passion is as tireless today as it was when they first started out four years ago. Not only do they educate their audiences about Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy but the crew also tackles the greater issue of equal rights for people who have physical disabilities. As Darius said to me while we were having lunch, he can do anything in his wheelchair that anyone else can do without one. DMD is not his obstacle: the only thing that ever stands in his way is a building or an area that is not accessible.

Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn at Ted is Here views "Darius Goes West" through the lens of a fellow sibling survivor

Denise at Journal Life: "Darius Goes West"

Not only does Darius bravely face his own inevitable fate with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, but through his humor and laughter, he sparks a revolution in the lives of everyone he meets! His journey allows him to do things he's never done before, like swim in the ocean, ride in a hot air balloon, and see the Grand Canyon. You know, as a special education teacher, I couldn't make it through this with a dry eye. If you're reading this blog, you need to see this movie!!

Matthews Family of Five at Every Second, Every Minute, Everyday

I would love to tell you all about it, But I have a challenge for you all ... I will tell you if you ask, however I would prefer you help Darius and his AMAZING friends reach their goal of selling ONE MILLION DVD's IN ONE YEAR! Each DVD is $20 and can be found on www.dariusgoeswest.org I will promise you, that this video will make you laugh, cry and for sure want to be a part of the ONE MILLION - There is a cure just waiting to be found. To Darius and all of your friends - YOU HAVE INSPIRED A NATION- God Bless you all!

Kim Moldofsky at BabyCenter MOMformation: What we're watching

Not only was Darius wishing for a snazzy new ride, but he hoped that by appearing on the show, he could teach the younger generation about Duchenne’s. After all, what does your average teen know about Jerry Lewis, let alone his MD telethon?

Trauma Diva: Real meanings in life

What does your life mean to you? What does the ability to walk mean to you? What if someone told you that you have a disease? A progressive disease that will eat away at your muscles, make you unable to run and play? Cause your heart muscle and respiratory muscles to fail? And that you may not see your 25th birthday?

Would you begin to live for today?

Steve Barkley shares a personal report from Emily Malanowski of how Darius' story helped her and her classmates develop "soft skills."

The impact this challenge had on my school would have never been predicted. The minds of my fellow students were on fire with ways to help DGW meet their goal. Brainstorming sessions were held and the secretary was bogged down with slips of paper that had suggestions on how to help on them. After all this support Dr. Wilson, the principal, was compelled to create some way all of the students’ energy could be focused to make the most difference.

Nicolette at Revolution Me! asks Where Will Darius' Journey Take You?

If you haven’t heard about Darius Weems, it’s about time you got to know him. Take a few minutes to watch the video below or spend some time on the Darius Goes West website and you will learn about Darius, eleven of his best friends, their journey in search of a wheelchair “pimped” by MTV and efforts to raise awarenesse about Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and handicap accessibility across America - and you will be inspired in a most profound way....

This weekend, summon up your courage, shake off the fear and take a step on your road - start by spreading the word about Darius’ journey, purchase a Darius Goes West DVD, read the Darius Goes West blog, follow Darius Goes West on Twitter, tweet about it yourself and use the inspiration to motivate action in your own life.

BlogHer CE Maria Niles blogs about life at PopConsumer and pop culture (including movies) at Beyond Help.

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