It might be a tad early to throw out 2018 Oscar nomination predictions for Best Documentary but the powerful story that’s told in Margaret Byrne’s “Raising Bertie”—opening June 9th—might be the first one to float on the top of that list.
Set in Bertie County, a rural African American-led community in Eastern North Carolina, “Raising Bertie” takes audiences deep into the emotional lives of three boys – Reginald “Junior” Askew, David “Bud” Perry, and Davonte “Dada” Harrell – over six years as they come of age.
Bryne’s vérité style of storytelling moves with confidence as the three young men’s stories weave together tracking their search to define their identities as seen through the eyes of youthful innocence. We visit their first loves, systemic and crippling racism, educational inequity, spirit numbing poverty and unemployment, and her film stands back as we watch them ponder their fates against such formidable odds.
Most documentaries visit inner-cities like Chicago and New York but rural minorities like the youth in Bertie represent some of the nation’s most vulnerable and least visible individuals who exist at that critical juncture of rural disenfranchisement and the achievement gap for young people of color.
“Raising Bertie” is an experience that asks us to see this world through “Junior,” “Bud” and “Dada’s” eyes and they all should not be ignored.
Here is what filmmaker Margaret Byrne had to share about making her very personal film — “Raising Bertie.”
LA Sentinel (LAS): Congrats — well that’s a strange thing to say because it’s a very hard hitting documentary. So, let me start again: what drew you to this subject and why did you place so much of your time and love to get this story committed to film?
Margaret Byrne (MB): When I came to Bertie in 2009, I was not planning to make a film. I was there to produce a short video about the Hive, an alternative school for young, African American men. At the time, I was working on “American Promise,’ a thirteen-year film following the education of two middle class, African American boys attending an elite, Manhattan school. Simultaneously following the boys in New York and the boys in rural North Carolina provided some obvious and unexpected insights. I felt compelled to seek out a broader story about race, access, opportunity, and education, especially as there seemed to be little information about the young, Black, rural experience.
We planned to follow the young men at the Hive for one year, but when the Hive shut down early in the filming process, the story of the film changed. It was no longer the story of hope we set out to make, but I knew their stories were important and we were invested in the lives of the young men so we continued to film. Over the years, we became very close to the families in the film. It was important for me, as an outsider, to spend most of the time with the camera off to truly understand their lives and the community. My goal was to make a film that was authentic and honored their lives. I’m grateful they trusted me to tell their stories.
LAS: How can making a movie change a life and a community for the better? Can it? Should there be a motivation to try?
MB: The stories that shape our national dialogue can be an important catalyst for positive change. When I decided to make a film in Bertie, I wanted to bring attention to a community that wasn’t being talked about. I never set out to change their lives or thought that I should. Rather I wanted people to see their value, and to understand their challenges. My hope is that the film will contribute to the national dialogue around the systemic issues that restrain the achievement of young people like those represented in “Raising Bertie.”
LAS: Can you update me on the lives of the young men whose story is told in “Raising Bertie”?
MB: Junior and Tomieka had a son, baby Junior, who will be two in August. They moved into their own home and Junior recently got his palette jack license at Smithfield and no longer works on the line.
Bud was in an accident and just got out of the hospital after two months. He spends a lot of time with his daughter, Niyah, whose now 6-years-old.
Dada has been working at Perdue and moved out of his mama’s house last year. He’s expecting a baby next year and is hoping to find another job soon.
Vivian Saunders recently received a grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Foundation to renovate the Hive House and continues to work with youth in her community.