Produced by Chicago’s internationally acclaimed Kartemquin Films and executive produced by Jermaine Cole (J. Cole), “Raising Bertie” focuses the story on an almost forgotten rural community of color that still exists in America. This six-year portrait is of three young African-American men who are coming-of-age in North Carolina’s rural Bertie County. Critics have compared the impact to “Moonlight” because it’s an intimate portrayal of young African-American men that connects, in narrative structure, their families and lays bare the images of their youthful innocence. These men are isolated, but they possess a will to face and overcome the demons that haunt and plague their community. The odds are stacked against them.
Led by filmmaker Margaret Byrne in her debut directorial effort, who spent years with the young men, she offers us a look at their lives with minimum commentary, allowing us to peer into their secret places. This film is wrapped in empathy. Tapping into the issues that face our country, a look at the other face of America is sobering.
Byrne uses the power of cinéma vérité to deliver an authentic and tender portrait of the lives of David “Bud” Perry, Reginald “Junior” Askew and Davonte “Dada” Harrell as they live and dream in rural Bertie County, N.C.
It’s Bud, Junior and Dada who make you feel, but it’s the filmmaker who will get all the credit in the end—sadly, another way to exploit our people for monetary gain.
Life in Bertie County is slow; slow and boring; slow, boring and predictable, and these young men have dreams, goals and a bucket full of heartache. Told over six years,“Raising Bertie” asks us to try to see the world through Bud, Junior and Dada’s eyes. Look at the future they face after they finish high school and search for employment. Part of growing up is finding work and a way to sustain yourself for the long haul. It’s an annual march toward manhood and one that millions of people take—year-after-year—and in the very slow Bertie County, N.C., the choices for any type of employment are slim.
You don’t require much of an imagination to see that the three are dangerously close to falling into a sad statistical folder stamped “Failure.” That proverbial folder is so filled with the lost dreams and shattered lives of the African-American youth who suffer the most from being American that it can’t be properly closed. There seems to be no end to this tragic tale and thus no end for countless documentaries addressing the very subject. This film is not entertainment. It should not have the title of entertainment. It’s a wake-up call and despite all the calls to wake up, community activist Vivian Saunders reminds them of the close proximity of the filled prisons. Here Bud, Junior and Dada have an opportunity to avoid landing in the state-run institutions that house so many of their friends, brothers and fathers. When the Board of Education closes The Hive, a place of education and guidance, Saunders’ hopes are dashed.
“Raising Bertie” is a surprising look at America’s heartland, and we need to see this side badly. This view of African-American young men living on the edge of poverty and being totally let down by a flawed educational system should be viewed by every single member of Congress and all heads of educational institutions in America.
When that happens here, the film turns into something else. The three boys are forced to return to an educational system that is failing them. Watching them struggle against such an injustice is painful.
“Raising Bertie” press notes explain that the three men are part of those “caught in the complex interplay of generational poverty, economic isolation, educational inequity and race.” There is nothing complicated about institutional racism and economic divide. It’s designed to create our community as “product” for the military machine and the prison system that is akin to modern slavery.
It’s not fair what’s happening to Bud, Junior and Dada. It’s not fair what’s happening to children of color all across America. It’s not fair at all and it can be easily remedied.
“Raising Bertie” opens June 9, followed by an expansion June 16 to San Francisco, Chicago, North Carolina and other locations.