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Two of the most impressive elements of Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams” are captured again in “Raising Bertie,” the latest from Kartemquin Films (makers of James’ landmark documentary, as well as “The Interrupters,” “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” and many more). When I saw “Hoop Dreams” for the first time, I can remember being instantly impressed with two structural elements of the film—the time commitment and the hands-off approach. James and his crew spent so much time with their subjects, allowing their growth and the impact of events in their lives to dictate the content of the film. And, along the same lines, they never felt like they were intervening, taking an approach often referred to as cinéma vérité. Both aspects of that approach are at the foundation of “Raising Bertie.” The filmmakers, led by Margaret Byrne in her debut directorial effort, spent years with their subjects, and they offer their stories to us without much commentary, just allowing us a window into lives that are likely very different from our own. Roger’s famous quote about film being an empathy machine has been making the rounds extensively since the election last week, and it seems apt here in that I never would have heard of Bertie, North Carolina if it weren’t for this movie, and using art to learn about every corner of our country seems more essential than ever.
Byrne started the project with an effort to make a film about The Hive, an alternative school for at-risk boys in Bertie. There she met three young men, Reginald ‘Junior’ Askew, David ‘Bud’ Perry and Davonte ‘Dada’ Harrell. All three men were on the precipice of falling through society’s cracks, as made clear by community activist Vivian Saunders when she notes how close the Hive is to one of many nearby prisons. At a certain point, these young men have a choice to commit to education or risk ending up at one of those state-run institutions like so many of their fathers, friends and brothers. Saunders hopes that The Hive will be the life preserver these young men need. Then the Board of Education closes it.
Raising Bertie is a longitudinal documentary feature following three young African American boys over the course of six years as they grow into adulthood in Bertie County, a rural African American-led community in Eastern North Carolina. Through the intimate portrayal of these boys, this powerful vérité film offers a rare in-depth look at the issues facing America’s rural youth and the complex relationships between generational poverty, educational equity, and race. The evocative result is an experience that encourages us to recognize the value and complexity in lives all too often ignored.
A portrait of three African American boys as they face a precarious coming of age. Watch Raising Bertie Online | raising bertie | Raising Bertie (2016) | Director: Margaret Byrne, Margaret Byrne’s documentary ‘Raising Bertie‘ is an intimate portrait of three teenage boys in rural North Carolina.