This documentary is a lesson in judging a book by its cover

Masked in tattoos, Lucky is a homeless mother trying to survive the streets of NYC – but she’s the very definition of ‘survivor’

Don’t let the nickname fool you: New York native Lucky Torres (née Waleska Torres Ruiz) has really had it rough. A headstrong kid brought up in the state’s crippled foster care system, Lucky did lots of bouncing around between juvenile detention centres, group homes and mental health facilities. Her life has been mired in tragedy: abandoned by her parents (her father died of an overdose and her mother of Aids), living on the streets and selling drugs, hit by a cab, sexually abused and pregnant at 13, losing custody of her daughter – the hard knocks just kept coming. And yet, through it all, the 32-year-old held her head high, refusing to throw in the towel. She’s what Lee Daniels, Maya Angelou and Destiny’s Child would all agree is the very definition of ‘survivor’.

As journalist Laura Checkoway’s intimate documentary portrait demonstrates, Lucky isn’t just a fiery, massively inked single mum with an odd Lil Wayne fixation, but also an incredibly charismatic and complex woman. Her striking forehead, neck and face tattoos (take, for instance, the word ‘bitch’ scrawled across her right cheek) are both art and thick-skinned armour, hinting at a backbreaking personal battle to drop her guard and let people in.

Executive-produced by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself), the film’s six-year journey finds Lucky trying to mend some really deep wounds, while making room for a girlfriend, securing a job and a flat, and reclaiming parental rights to her second child, Joziah. On the eve of Lucky’s VOD release, we spoke to both director and character about why the stubborn-yet-sensitive mum is a far cry from your typical film heroine, and why that makes for such a powerful story.

LUCKY’S SALES PITCH: “YOU’RE NOT PAYING ENOUGH ATTENTION TO ME”

Checkoway, a journalist for Vibe, The Village Voice and Rolling Stone, was interviewing a group of LGBT women in Greenwich Village’s Christopher Street Pier when Lucky came up to the reporter, handed her a phone number and said, “You need to call me.” That led to an October 2008 feature story in The Fader magazine, but Checkoway wasn’t done yet. Although she’d never picked up a camera and had to self-finance the project, she felt compelled to make a doc so Lucky could speak for herself. “She has such a powerful presence,” remarks Checkoway. “The magazine piece just felt like an introduction. I wanted to know more. So without knowing what it would entail, I picked up a little point-and-shoot and started filming. That was 2007. I really wanted to understand her and all the social issues that her life represents.”

While Checkoway’s background is journalism, she resisted the temptation of a foster-care exposé led by interviews with welfare system experts. The absence of any underlying storytelling agenda only adds to the film’s power. “I made that decision because, ultimately, Lucky is an authority on her own life. I wanted to be at eye level with her and just get to know her – get a reflection of the system she’s been through and all the ways in which she’s been failed by this broken system.”

LUCKY WASN’T A PEOPLE PERSON – UNTIL NOW

Reflecting on the lengthy documentary shoot, Lucky remembers how much anger she’d bottle up, and how she blamed the world for all her pain. She explains how Checkoway taught her to trust others. “I’ve been hurt all my life by people who said they loved me,” she says. “I was worried about loving this woman and then having her walk out of my life. I didn’t just want to be a project for her; I wanted her to be the family I never had. And that’s what she became.”

As Laura filmed her overcoming adversity on her own terms, Lucky began opening up. “Before, you couldn’t catch me smiling unless I had a beer in my hand or drugs in my system. Now I can just look at someone and say ‘good morning’ with a smile on my face. I’ve become a more relaxed, loving person – more of an advocate for different people. I’ve opened up to the world and the world has opened up to me.”

TATTOOS TO PROCESS THE PAIN

At first glance, you’ll notice the stars, spiderweb, skulls and tribal designs sprawled across her face. But Lucky’s whole body is a shrine to ink art. In the doc, she describes tattoos as her attempt to “find the pain because I can’t locate it.” I ask her if ink remains an outlet for channeling any barely contained rage. “Well, I may no longer be angry, but the pain doesn’t go away. I just learn to express it differently. Instead of getting drunk, being a low-life and popping pills, I just deal with it in a different way.”

Prior to our interview, she’s just gotten a grand total of 13 new tats. Lots of calligraphy and words of empowerment: “If you stand for nothing, you fall for anything”, “Beautiful mistakes”, “Bipolar”, “Treasured” and, most tellingly, “My skin is my diary”. Much more than needle therapy, tattoos are her chosen medium of self-expression. “I never have a plan, it just happens. What I get goes with my emotions. I’m always going to get tattoos because every day, something happens in my life. They’re memories I’m either creating or that are coming back to me. My skin will always be my diary, so I will always be getting tattoos.”

AN ASPIRATIONAL BOND WITH WEEZY

At the time of filming, one of Lucky’s biggest inkspirations was pioneering New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne, he of the frantic flow, head-to-toe tats and pathos-drenched discography. An aspiring singer and poet herself, she got a handful of Weezy-themed ink work done (his mug on her rib cage, his infamous “Fear of God” design on her eyelids) and even showed up at his 2009 New York trial date to give her digits to Weezy’s Cash Money crew. Now that the film has screened around the world, I ask if anything has come of those efforts. “I think I exaggerated (my infatuation) in a way,” she considers. “I just felt we had so much in common, because I make music myself. I respect him for being the person he is – he doesn’t give a fuck what other people think, say or do. He has his own image. Some people say he’s talking gibberish, but if people really listened to his music, he’s telling a story. I still respect him for his determination, but I have my own image, my own life and my own story to tell, too. I just started recording music.”

WORKING HARD FOR THAT HAPPY ENDING

The film lays bare the discrimination Lucky faces on the daily for looking the way she does, as well as the ripple effects of her horrific foster care upbringing on her life as a grown woman. While the film ends on a somewhat optimistic note, hinting at a budding relationship with her son Joziah, Lucky sets the record straight about the post-shoot comedown. “People might see me in a documentary and think everything’s been worked out; I wish it were that easy. The woman you see in the film, whom I considered my son’s grandmother, went behind my back and took custody of my son. I hurt for him because I raised him. But we talk every day on the phone. I always remind him how much I love him.”

As for the ongoing bigotry, the characteristically defiant Lucky just lets it roll off her back. “I’ve accepted that I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. The sooner you realise that, the less stress you put upon yourself. If I let everyone who passed judgment on me affect my life, I would be a very angry person… I would probably go to jail for murder!”

Lucky will be available on digital platforms December 8

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