Few films or lives boast a truth teller who makes the stakes more powerfully stark than Vivian Saunders does early in Raising Bertie, Margaret Byrne’s essential debut documentary. “We’re a quarter of a mile from the jail,” announces Saunders, the executive director at a small North Carolina high school for teen boys in trouble. “I often tell the boys, ‘You got a choice. You can be educated at 117 County Farm Road, or you can be educated at 219 County Farm Road.”
At 117, at the film’s start, is the prefab Bertie County school building dubbed the Hive, populated with young African-American men who have, for individual reasons, been bounced out of the district’s high schools. Saunders’ stern declaration looms over the film, which stands as a coming-of-age counterpoint to last year’s urgent documentaries about the mass incarceration of America’s black men: Raising Bertie charts nothing less than what it’s like to try to grow up free in the prison capital of the world.
One hundred miles east of Raleigh, its two-lane roads straddled by corn and cotton fields, where the Dollar General is next to an empty building that clearly once was a Pizza Hut, Bertie County is predominantly black and doesn’t offer much in the way of jobs. One boy we meet, David “Bud” Perry, works for his father’s landscaping company but vows not to stay on the farm the rest of his life. Another, Davonte “Dada” Harrell, tells us how he and his brother love to test new barber shops; he aspires one day to cut hair himself. “I am intelligent, and I am capable of greatness,” the boys declare when reciting the Hive’s “Power Pledge.” But outside 117 County Farm Road — and excepting a number of hardworking mothers we encounter — Bertie offers them little direction.
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“I don’t have no role models, ’cause I just want to be myself,” Perry says in an early scene. Later, as the boys edge toward manhood and Saunders’ and the Hive’s influence wanes, Reginald “Junior” Askew announces, “I want to leave Bertie ’cause it’s boring.” As he speaks, we watch him ping Natural Lite tallboys with a BB gun.
Byrne’s film, shot over six years, at first has a discrete shape: It will follow Perry, Harrell and Askew through their years at the Hive and then out into their adult lives. What we glimpse of the courses and field trips is heartening: a hands-on education that emphasizes habits of learning, strategies for managing emotions, and the possibility of college. But 30 minutes in, after one school year, the Hive is shut down, and the young men are placed back into larger, more indifferent schools.
The film, like its subjects, now finds its attention divided, its clear thrust at risk of dissipating. Byrne’s cameras follow the young men into some classes, where we witness Perry, a 20-year-old senior, turning bored and cranky in technical math, wandering the room, snapping at the teacher, calling a much smaller kid “pussyboy” and threatening, “I’ll fuck you up.” What’s scary here isn’t Perry’s lashing out; it’s that, if reported to officials, such behavior from a black man could forever alter the course of his life — or even end it. Perry later will get caught carrying a weapon to school, a shank, and find himself on probation but still determined to graduate.
Byrne offers us rare access to the inner lives of young men. In the opening scenes, Askew bikes down a country road and shows off for the camera the fort he’s building. But once he’s in the bigger school, he hardens, eventually running with a band of toughs who harass their neighbors for protection money. (We see one quick, abortive beatdown, and then much cheering and congratulating afterward.) His mother, Cheryl, gives him the purest hell for it, and the young man seems shaken by a visit to see his father in prison, a scene of supreme intimacy that demonstrates Byrne’s care and comfort with her subjects — and their trust in her. Still, she mostly emphasizes social context over vérité drama, capturing the essences of her subjects, their families and their world; the effect is something like watching people you know a little age a lot — and turn out mostly OK.
Perry and Askew are gripped at times by the aimless, frustrated anger that so often seizes young men who see few economic prospects for themselves. Both, though, have options, and neither stirs trouble enough to fall into that trap Saunders describes at Raising Bertie’s start — neither is bound for the wrong end of County Farm Road. Love helps, of course: In quick, tender scenes late in the film, we see the men with the young women they’ve met and fallen for. The film’s shape, at last, is that of life, of young men trying out selves but ultimately growing into who they always were at the start. Byrne captures, with exquisite attentiveness, the hard work of being your own role model.