Segments in this Video

Introduction (01:08)


This film follows an 89-year-old's struggles to prove to the child welfare system that she can care for her 9-year-old grandson.

Walter's Background (01:47)

Viola Dees' dying son asked her to take care of his four-year-old son Walter. Walter's mother was addicted to drugs, and he was sent to a foster home at birth--before she fought to get him out.

Grandmother's Care for Walter (01:55)

Walter was a disturbed child when she got him, his grandmother says. She talks about her love and ability to care for him.

Walter's Progress (02:15)

Walter is shown doing well in Sunday school and participating at a church event. His grandmother notes how he has changed.

School (01:51)

School officials talk about talk about Walter's grandmother's efforts to prevent him falling through the cracks and to improve his educational performance.

Viola's Heart Attack (02:20)

Viola had a heart attack. Walter visits her in the hospital. He looks out the window, shaking his head in a strange manner.

Walter Becomes Hostile (02:38)

Viola returned from the hospital. After Viola's heart attack, Walter became hostile and difficult to manage. She talks to a calm, seemingly ashamed Walter about an outburst.

Walter's Arson (02:09)

Walter set Viola's house on fire. The possibility that Walter will be taken from her is discussed. She despairs.

Walter at Psychiatric Hospital (01:25)

Walter goes to a psychiatric hospital, taken by his aunt and grandmother. The counselor blames Walter's actions on his mother's drug abuse.

Psychiatrists Take Walter Away (01:32)

Psychiatrists demand that Walter be placed in long-term residential care, against his grandmother's wishes. They will not send him back to her.

Viola's Birthday (02:21)

Viola's family reunites at her 89th birthday; Walter's psychiatrists prevent him from attending.

Visiting Walter (02:09)

Viola goes to the hospital to see Walter for a birthday celebration. They hug goodbye.

Walter Temporarily Back Home (01:30)

When Viola finally agreed to place Walter in long-term residential care, the hospital released him to her until she could find a facility that accepted him. Back at home, he is passively disobedient.

Visit to Residential Care Facility (02:02)

After refusing to speak in two admissions interviews, Walter must cooperate at a third facility or go back to a psychiatric hospital; his grandmother prepares him, and the visit begins.

Admissions Criteria (03:03)

An admissions director explains why the facility will not take some children, and the criteria for admission. Viola waits for a call from the facility and worries about what their delay means.

Admitted to School (02:42)

Viola gets a call: Walter has been admitted. They shop for clothes and prepare for school and eat a celebratory meal.

Walter's Reluctance (01:10)

Walter declares he doesn't want to go to his school and playfully argues with his grandmother. He agrees to give it three days.

Walter Moves In (02:40)

Walter is wild and misbehaving as his grandmother moves him in to his room at his facility. They say goodbye.

Epilogue & Credits: Big Mama (02:58)

When Walter finished his treatment, social workers felt Viola, 90, was too frail to care for him and sent him to a foster home. A lonely Viola walks out of the facility. We hear her words--hopes for Walter's future--as credits roll.

Credits: Big Mama (02:01)

Credits: Big Mama

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Big Mama

3-Year Streaming Price: $169.95



This Academy Award–winning documentary profiles a devoted grandmother’s struggle to raise her grandson under the watchful eye of a complex and unsympathetic social welfare system. The film follows Viola Dee for 18 months as the 90-year-old cares for 9-year-old Walter in South Central Los Angeles. While contending with her own declining health and Walter’s behavioral and psychiatric problems, Dee fights—with limited success—to keep Walter out of foster care. Called “a great teaching tool” by the Council on Social Work Education, the video brings to light the challenges and concerns of the all-too-common phenomenon of elderly people parenting orphaned or abandoned grandchildren. (35 minutes)

Length: 40 minutes

Item#: BVL49769

Copyright date: ©2000

Closed Captioned

Reviews & Awards

Academy Award, Best Documentary Short Subject


“Serves as a strong plea for reform and negotiation between grandparents who courageously rear their orphaned grandchildren and the state which questions their ability to do so.”  New Orleans Times-Picayune              


“There is no doubt that Big Mama deserves the Oscar it won.”  The Christian Science Monitor      


“A great teaching tool covering issues that go across the lifespan. Terrific!”  —Anita Rosen, Council on Social Work Education    


“Viewers are left sharing Ms. Dees’s hope that Walter will remember what she taught him.”  The New York Times

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