I didn’t mean to spend my Thursday afternoon watching a movie. I definitely didn’t mean to spend it boohooing like I was watching my baby brother leave for college (the first time). You know, that awkward wide-grinned but furrowed-brow cry that happens when you watch something heart-wrenching and suddenly you realize you’ve cried a wet spot onto your shirt and now you can’t wear it to your friend’s house for fajita night. Well, such was my reaction to Darius Goes West, the documentary recommended to me several times over the past year or so.
The story really is amazing. Darius Weems, a 15 year-old with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), embarks on a mission to “pimp his ride” through the MTV program by that name. Darius is wheelchair bound due to his degenerative disease. Thus his “ride” is not the typical Rav4 or Festiva featured in Pimp My Ride, but his dated, worn-out chair. As he and his crew of eleven buddies travel across the country in a loaned RV, spontaneous stanzas of the journey are written in. The RV breaks down. Darius’s old motorized wheelchair breaks down. Darius loves playing in ocean waves but is not a fan of creeping through swamps among gators in a rickety motorboat. The crew advocates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) along the way, pointing out the challenges they face at non-handicapped friendly places. Gas stations prove to be inaccessible by wheelchair. Contrarily, Carlsbad Caverns turns out to be extremely accessible. Darius muses that he even has choices in which paths to roll along in the underground labyrinth of rock formations.
More than anything, the journey is a celebration of Darius’ life and spirit. DMD took his brother’s life at the age of nineteen. He was a mere four years older than Darius is at the time of the film. Darius tells his audience that his brother’s fight with the disease is what inspired him to take on the challenge and be a fighter too. The movie would not be so spectacular if not for Darius’s humor and jolly attitude. The soundtrack consists of raps written and delivered by Darius himself. Before he left landlocked Athens, Georgia to travel across the country, “D” had grown up in government housing and never left his county. The documentary captures all of his “firsts:” the ocean (Atlantic and Pacific actually), mountains, Grand Canyon and Vegas. We see sites through his eyes, as if for the first time, and the effect is wondrous and appreciative. He acknowledges the power of getting out and seeing and doing rather than feeling sorry for oneself. I admire how mindful Darius is of his role in life; it’s not about saving himself, but spreading a message.
DMD is the # 1 genetic killer of children in the world. It is the most severe form of muscular dystrophy in that the muscle degeneration happens so rapidly. Most children are confined to a wheelchair by the age of 12 and typically do not live past 25. There just hasn’t been much in the way of well-funded research to save these lives. Darius and his teenage friends’ mission to raise money for research is such a noble cause because parents of children with DMD are in despair about how to get more people involved. If unaffected by the disease, people typically don’t know anything about it.
Darius, Logan Smalley, his best friend and director of Darius Goes West, and the rest of the cast and crew, are teen idols now. They spent Darius’s 19th year traveling the country showing movie screenings at high schools and universities. They were received the way the Jonas Brothers would be, with adolescent cheers and teens scrabbling across the floor to retrieve T-shirts thrown into the crowds. In 2010, most of the crew have graduated college and are pursuing Darius’s campaign full-time. Darius is looking forward to his 21st birthday on September 27, 2010. The goal of their most recent escapade was to sell 1,000,000 DVDs. $17 of the $20 from each sale went to DMD research, the other $3 to make more DVDs. The organization “Darius Goes West” placed 9th on a list of 100 top charities in America in a recent vote sponsored by Chase Community Giving. And that’s out of over 500,000 competing charities in all!
Now for the question on everyone’s mind: did Darius get his ride “pimped” by MTV? Surprisingly enough, the crew made it to California only to be rejected. But, as Darius put it in an interview, then there would have been no ending to the movie. It would have stopped there, the climax having been reached halfway through the trip! How’s that for suspense?
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