Filmmaker Tod Lending discusses the making of the film, All the Difference.
POV: So this is actually your third film on POV. We broadcast Omar & Pete and The Principal Story. Tell us a little bit, in your own words, about All The Difference.
TL: So All The Difference is about two young black men that we followed from the south side of Chicago, through their last year of high school and through all four years of college. And they come from very tough backgrounds. They both grew up in single parent families and very poor neighborhoods, very violent neighborhoods. And we looked at what does it take to get these guys through high school and through all four years of college. In 2010 when we started this film, nationwide about 52% of young black men were graduating high school. So almost half were dropping out. Of that 52% that graduated there was only 34% that would then go on to college and within a semester of having graduated high school. So the odds of coming from that type of community and making it through school and making it through college were extremely low. They're still low, very, very low today. And that was the question we faced is what does it take to get them through high school and into college and through college? And that is the premise of the film. So we decided to focus on two young men in order to examine that question and tell that story. And the two young men are Robert and Krishaun. And we followed them through their last year of high school, which the first all black male public charter high school in the country, called Urban Prep. And, and then followed them through college. And we had no idea what was going to happen. We had no idea if they'd make it through college or if one would make and the other wouldn't. So that's the journey we went on. That's what the film's about.
POV: Tell me a little bit about how you met Robert and Krishaun and what made you decide to focus on them.
TL: Well when I decided to look at a couple of guys who were going to Urban Prep, and who were going to be graduating and hopefully going on to college, I went in to that school and they lined up about 45 guys for me to pre-interview and to decide who I would follow. So I went through all 45, and I actually selected four, knowing that two would probably fall to the wayside for one reason or another. With Robert, I was taken by his intensity, his drive, his focus, and his background, his story. He has an amazing story of having grown up in a family with two parents who were both drug addicted. His father killed his mother when he was 17 months old. He ran her over with a car. And then Robert's grandmother who was a sharecropper down in Mississippi came up and raised Robert and his six other siblings. And they were again, living in an extremely poor neighborhood and had very little support. And Robert by his senior year in high school - Robert was in trouble all through elementary school and middle school, was dabbling in the gangs - had every reason to go the wrong way. By his senior year in high school, as a result of the support that Urban Prep was giving him, he seemed to be very focused on getting into college and making it through college. So I was taken by Robert's story and that's why I selected him. And Krishaun also came from a very complex background. Both of his parents were in the gangs. His mother had been shot and narrowly killed. The bullet just missed her heart, which got her out of the gangs when Krishaun was young. But he too fell into the gangs and became very active and was even in it through, through parts of high school. But again, by his senior year, by the time I was interviewing him, he seemed to be driven to try and get into college and make it. And academics were very, very difficult for him. So that's why I selected him as someone to follow.
POV: Talk a little bit about the specifics about Urban Prep. What is it that Urban Prep does to prepare these kids, to give them that leg up that they need?
TL: Urban Prep is a pretty amazing school system. There are now several Urban Preps, they've expanded and I think they're up to four schools now, and they're also looking to expand nationally. They are providing family and support and guidance and mentorship to these young men as they are learning. And discipline - big discipline. The fact that it's all male is extremely important. It takes away the distraction of the females which you know all adolescents, all kids in high school are distracted by the opposite sex. And these kids really need to focus. Urban Prep provides that opportunity. I'd love to see more schools like that.
POV: In your film, Urban Prep has given them this preparation, and yet, when they arrive at college there are all sorts of surprises. Can you talk about some of the challenges that they run up against during their college years?
TL: Oh my god, yeah. Well there were a lot. I mean I always felt like during the whole filming of this that it doesn't take much of anything to get these guys off track, to lose them. Just one little failure, that could be it and they could drop out and that could be the end of it. Krishaun wrestled academically, really struggled to maintain a g.p.a. where that was connected to his financial support. And he came within a hair's breadth of losing that. In one instance he should have lost it, but the school decided to go an extra step and give him another chance. And Krishaun went to an HBCU school, all black school. And one of his big downfalls was trying to get into a frat that he really wanted to get into, and he came very close to dropping out. Robert wrestled with being one of the few black males on campus and what that was like. And what it's like to walk into a classroom and feel all those eyes on you and feeling that question as he said in the film, what are you doing here?
POV: Tell me a little bit about what your hopes are for this film.
TL: I really hope this affects young black men who are coming from that, that specific type of background, who are in high school, or in middle school, who don't envision college for themselves. This was Krishaun and Robert in middle school. They entered high school two to three grades behind in reading, writing and math. That's where they entered freshman year in high school. They had no expectations to go on to college. That wasn't in their picture. That's not what their families were talking about. That's not what their community was talking about. So, I really hope that this film will affect their narratives that they have of themselves, that they see for themselves. In the film, you'll see Robert's Krishaun's former teachers talk about how the life expectancy is about 18 years old. That's what they see for themselves growing up. Oh if I live to 18, I'll be lucky. And that narrative needs to change you know because that, that can just become a self-fulfilled prophecy. For your average PBS audience, I would hope that the film would be yet another story that changes the narrative of how we see young African American men who are coming from, in the case of Chicago, the south side and west side of Chicago, where there's just rampant violence and just a lot of poverty. I would hope that this film would make a chip in that narrative. That if you come from that place, you know that's what you expect to see. It's changing, very slowly, but it's changing and it can change with the right supports obviously and the right types of schools like Urban Prep.
POV: Talk a little about the title "All The Difference" and why you chose that.
TL: The title is very simple. The title, All The Difference is about what are the things in the lives of these young men that make All The Difference? And in this case, it's about support and what are all those different types of supports that they get from mentoring, from a grandparent, from a teacher that cares, from an advisor in college, a coach. It's a variety of different things. The film is about those things that make All The Difference in the lives of these two young men.