Film Review: A Touch of Sugar


Director: Ani Simon-Kennedy

Executive Producer: Conrod Kelly

Produced by: Merck

Premiered: Thursday, April 25, 2019, at the Tribeca Film Festival

A Touch of Sugar may be the title of a documentary about diabetes narrated by Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis, but it actually provides a touch of hope—hope that we can collectively solve the diabetes epidemic that impacts 30 million Americans and over 400 million people worldwide.

The documentary begins with Davis talking about diabetes statistics in the United States; 1 in 10 adults have it, and 90 to 95 percent of them have type 2 diabetes while 84.1 million (1/3 of Americans) have prediabetes. Davis, herself, was diagnosed with prediabetes in 2018. Though she works out regularly and watches her diet, her family history is likely to have made her more susceptible to the disease. In this film, the Fences actress reveals her Aunt Bessie had both of her legs amputated before passing away due to the disease. Her paternal grandmother also died of diabetes-related complications and her two sisters currently live with type 2.

While Davis’s personal experience is weaved throughout the documentary, the film highlights the stories of four people living with type 2 diabetes. Each of these individuals lives in a different part of the country and comes from a different cultural background. Each of them faces unique challenges in managing diabetes. These challenges draw from themes that people without diabetes can relate to—access to quality, fresh foods, the importance of love and family, proper health care and wanting community and congressional leaders to create and implement health policies that benefit everyone.

Throughout the telling of the stories of these individuals, Davis discusses the obstacles to effective diabetes management:

  • 23 million Americans live in food deserts (areas where it’s difficult to buy affordable/good quality fresh food)
  • One in three adults aren’t meeting their A1c goals
  • One in three adults have low health literacy

Shenekqual Robertson-Carter is the first individual we meet. She’s an African-American woman and lives in Dallas, Texas. Her family has a long history of diabetes and she’s been living with it herself for over 15 years. However, it was when her son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 11 years old that she received the wake-up call she needed. Her attitude towards type 2 changed and she found the urgency to learn more about it. The film shows Robertson-Carter and her son preparing healthy meals together and later shows her discussing how her support system evolved to include her fiancée. She calls her fiancée the voice of reason as he helps her stay on track with helping her watch what she eats. At the end of the film, we see them wed in a small ceremony.

Susie Katona is a biracial woman—half Hispanic, half white—living in a rural area with her husband in Yucca Valley, California. She describes herself as an emotional eater and her town has no resources or opportunities for diabetes or nutrition education; her town doesn’t offer the medical assistance she needs to learn about type 2 and make healthier choices, so she has had to teach herself using the internet. Her husband remarked at first, the motivation to do this wasn’t there while they were in their 40s. However, as they reached their 50s and 60s and the effects of diabetes started to arise, their resolve to be around for their grandchildren inspired them to make changes. Katona also noted a big challenge to diabetes care: being poor. During her upbringing, her family didn’t have money and given her heritage, they sustained themselves with beans, rice and fried potatoes. Food and habit changes are costly, according to Katona.

Stewart Perry is a white male activist from Lexington, Kentucky and has been living with type 2 diabetes since 1990. His upbringing also had an impact on his health: Perry grew up in Appalachia, where he grew up eating things like chicken and dumplings and the sugar available in his household was brown and white sugar. Having survived a heart attack, Perry makes it his mission to educate and spread awareness about type 2 diabetes (T2D), including discussing stigmas associated with it and lobbying on behalf of people with diabetes on Capitol Hill.

Niruka Rodriguez is a Hispanic woman living in the Bronx with her son and her family also has a long history of diabetes. While she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with prediabetes and eventually, type 2 diabetes, which proved shocking. Though she aims to take care of herself as much as possible, her family’s financial situation makes it difficult. That said, her son aims to help her and states he only wants his mother to stay alive. To keep her motivated, Rodriguez uses her faith.

A Touch of Sugar explores the complexities of diabetes by directly reflecting the perspective of those actually living with diabetes, giving type 2 the multidimensional attention it deserves. This film makes it clear that this is a disease that requires far more than just diligently checking blood sugar, and the challenges perpetuated by society’s misunderstandings have become dangerous and at times, detrimental to the survival of people with diabetes. Getting our society to a place of education and understanding requires visibility of the perspectives of those living with type 2, and by inviting viewers into the lives of these T2Ds, A Touch of Sugar surely takes a step in the right direction.

WRITTEN BY T'ara Smith, POSTED 06/13/19, UPDATED 12/11/22

T’ara was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in July 2017 at the age of 25. Since her diagnosis, she focused her academic studies and career on diabetes awareness and living a full life with it. She’s excited to have joined the Beyond Type 1 team to continue her work. Two years later, T'ara discovered she'd been misdiagnosed with type 2 and actually has latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA). Outside the office, T’ara enjoys going to the movies, visiting parks with her dog, listening to BTS and cooking awesome healthy meals. T’ara holds an MS in Nutrition Education from American University.