Raising Bertie: A female director's very own 'Boyhood'
While Richard Linklater was putting a decade into his film Boyhood, Chicago-based Margaret Byrne was also putting six years of her life into Raising Bertie, which documents three African American boys growing up in rural poverty in North Carolina. What will Dada, Junior and Bud make of their lives in Bertie? With 27 prisons within a 100 mile radius of the place, this one fun fact about Bertie seems to suggest the odds are completely stacked against them.
Byrne is used to pouring her life into her subjects – she was previously the cinematographer and editor on American Promise, which was a 12 year journey on a similar subject – two African American families pursuing change for their sons through education. When Raising Bertie starts, The Hive, a place of safety and learning for local boys, is going to close.
“I think American Promise must have been the inspiration for Raising Bertie, because I first came to Bertie in 2009, and people were not telling stories about rural education. In fact, I was going to make a documentary about the work Vivian ( the organiser of The Hive) was doing, and then the school shut down, and it was hard to regroup. I suppose it became a film about young black men who had just lost their agency of learning, and that’s how it became a longitudinal film over six years. It’s far more complex than I ever dreamt.”
While Margaret’s local newspaper, The Chicago Sun-Times, points out that “Bertie County is America. It’s Chicago. It’s Detroit. It’s Los Angeles …where schools and lack of job prgrams fail to meet communities’ most desperate needs” – the problems facing urban African American boys in Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago are better-documented. As the director puts it, “there are definitely similarities with youth in urban areas, and that’s something we’re talking about in the USA right now, but as we’re so divided, when we talk about ‘rural America’ we talk about ‘white America.’
“But communities of colour make up 20 percent of that rural population, and we don’t get to see what it’s like to live in a community like this. Inner city youth don’t face the physical isolation, the physical lack of opportunity. For example, Junior had to travel 30 miles to get to school. If he missed the one bus of the morning, that was it for the day – and not to make excuses, but that was part of his downfall, and how he ended up dropping out and joining a street gang. When they go on a class trip to a college two or three hours away, you can see it’s a completely different world for them.
“There are a lot of affluent, black leaders in the community in Bertie but they’re so isolated that the boys’ lives wouldn’t even touch theirs.”
At the time of starting filming, Obama had just become President. A clip of his speech-making is on a TV in Bertie, words to the effect of ‘even if the odds are stacked against you that’s no excuse not to try.’ Even with a more sympathetic face in the White House back then, the odds are still stacked against the three boys – and the filmmaker raises the issues of “the national conversation right now, which you can never guess at when you’re making a film like this - it couldn’t be a more crucial time to listen to guys like this and understand what they’re going through. These federal prisons that are everywhere in Bertie – it does have an effect on the rural community. Especially now with our current President and Attorney General talking about law and order and building more – there has to be an acknowledgement of the effect they have.”
The success of Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro means that a documentary Raising Bertie has more of a chance in joining the national conversation. Byrne reports now that Bud, Junior and Dada are already fathers or about to become fathers themselves. The greatest standout from the film is actually not the trio, but Vivian from The Hive and the Bertie mothers, who are raising their boys, usually single-handedly. All three of the boys want to stick around to see their own children grow up - should they do that, that's success in itself.
Go to http://raisingbertie.com/screenings - to find a screening near you