“Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. … Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right. But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. … That’s no excuse for not trying.” — President Barack Obama, 2009 “Back to School” speech
There is much to be gleaned from the words of Barack Obama. They are inspiring words. In Margaret Byrne’s brutally honest documentary “Raising Bertie,” the words, which are part of the film’s narrative, resonate with a trio of African-American teens who may find strength in the verbiage, but little comfort.
The teens, Reginald “Junior” Askew, Davonte “Dada” Harrell and David “Bud” Perry, are the faces of rural Bertie County, Eastern North Carolina, where 80 percent of the population is black. The families we meet are matriarchal, helmed by hardworking moms whose husbands or boyfriends long ago left them for other women or prison. They are devoted to their sons, pushing them to get a good education and a better life.
The film follows the three teens as they navigate life through an alternative school called The Hive. Run by a towering powerhouse in the form of Vivian Saunders, The Hive provides local troubled teens with the intensive, nurturing mentorship and community-based education that can help them in ways the local school system cannot. Funding soon runs dry and The Hive is shuttered; the boys are returned to the local high school, where their attention spans and school skills deteriorate. What never falters are the young men’s dreams, and their drive to be more than what the constraints of their circumstances prescribe.
Byrne, who followed her subjects over a six-year period, powerfully drives home what is obvious and yet what most of us fail to see: Bertie County is America. It’s Chicago. It’s Detroit. It’s Los Angeles. It’s a portrait of communities and families striving to do right by their kids, but where schools and lack of job programs fail to meet communities’ most desperate needs.
In one scene, Saunders tells the young men in her charge: “We’re gonna put ‘Mr.’ in front of your name, instead of ‘D.O.C.’.” Her words should be a wakeup call to all of us.
‘ABACUS’: Also opening Friday from Kartemquin Films is “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” from “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James. The film, playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center, tells of the only bank to face federal charges in the 2008 financial crisis, a community institution founded by immigrants in New York’s Chinatown.
‘Raising Bertie’ three stars
Kartemquin Films presents a documentary directed by Margaret Byrne. No MPAA rating (adult language). Running time: 97 minutes. Opens Friday at Studio Movie Grill Chatham.