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An intimate portrait of three African-American young men coming of age in rural North Carolina, executive produced by J. Cole
In the quietly powerful Raising Bertie, three black boys in North Carolina’s rural Bertie County come of age right before our eyes. Filmed over six years, they deal with the same issues that every boy approaching the leap to manhood faces—and others triggered by their specific and often precarious conditions. As the quote from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son that opens the film puts it, “I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also so much more than that. So are we all.”
Raising Bertie has its national broadcast premiere on the PBS documentary series POV (Point of View) on August 28, 2017 (check local listings). POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, now in its 30th season.
Raising Bertie opens windows into three young men’s lives: Reginald “Junior” Askew, a charismatic young man looking for direction; Davonte “Dada” Harrell, a quiet teen who likes to cut hair and care for his nephew; and David “Bud” Perry, who has a quick-temper and takes pride in being a sharp dresser.
When the audience is introduced to the young men, Junior’s father and Dada’s older brother are incarcerated and Bud is on parole; all three boys are being raised by loving and hard-working single mothers.
The documentary was initially conceived as a survey of an alternative school in Bertie County called the Hive House. When the film evolved into a feature-length project, the Hive became the film’s launching pad. The audience meets Junior, Dada and Bud at the school. Helmed by impassioned educator and community advocate Vivian Saunders, the Hive is a stabilizing force in the teens’ lives as it undertakes the task of providing at-risk black boys in Bertie with a safe environment to learn, bond and express themselves.
But when the school suddenly closes, the young men are forced to return to the town’s traditional public high school, where they confront mounting social and academic obstacles. Faced with generational poverty and the challenges of growing up black in rural America, the protagonists struggle to graduate from high school and avoid the violence and substance abuse that have robbed them of their fathers.
This powerful longitudinal documentary marks the directorial debut of Margaret Byrne and is produced by Chicago’s internationally acclaimed Kartemquin Films, the creators behind Hoop Dreams and The Trials of Muhammad Ali. The film is also executive produced by Grammy Award-nominated rapper Jermaine Cole, known by his stage name J. Cole, who grew up in North Carolina.
The audience is drawn into the boys’ small-town world as Raising Bertie weaves between their stories. On one level, the film addresses universal themes of family, adolescent angst and the search for identity, and on another it tackles the particular realities faced by rural minorities, including systemic racism, educational inequality, poverty and unemployment. “It’s like I’m not even here,” Junior says in one scene as he skips rocks on the side of a dirt road at dusk with cars passing him by.
In making Raising Bertie, the filmmakers shine a light on Junior’s and other rural black children’s existence. Bertie County’s population is 80 percent black and 20 percent white, yet rural African Americans like Junior, Dada and Bud represent some of the nation’s least visible and most vulnerable individuals. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, poverty rates among rural children continue to rise. In addition, poverty rates for rural black children are more than double the rates for rural white children.
As the cameras roll over the course of six years, these boys become men with responsibilities and a desire to do better than their fathers. Their indomitable spirit and sheer will to rise above their circumstances sustain them.
At the end of the film, Junior finally lands a factory job, albeit two hours away in Virginia, and is expecting a baby with “an angel” he met as she was leaving church; Bud is proud to have graduated from high school before he aged out at 21 and works two farming jobs to pay child support for his 4- year-old daughter; and Dada, the youngest and shyest of the bunch, has a supportive girlfriend and enrolls in barbering school.
“I didn’t want to focus on stories of the exceptional,” said director Margaret Byrne of her decision to film Junior, Bud and Dada. “The truth is, I made a film about three kids I met and I cared about. The individuals in this story are representative of their community and they matter.”
“There is a clear disconnect between urban and rural communities in America right now; Raising Bertie challenges prevailing perceptions of race and class in rural America by giving viewers access to a trio of the young black male voices we don’t often hear,” said POV executive producer Justine Nagan. “After spending six years embedded in Bertie County, Margaret Byrne tells the complex stories of these three youths with the care and understanding their experiences demand.”
About the Filmmakers:
Margaret Byrne, Director / Producer,
Margaret Byrne has worked in documentary film for over 15 years. She was a cinematographer and an additional editor on the Emmy-nominated American Promise (2013), a thirteen-year project following the education of two black American boys from New York City, and Slaying Goliath (2009), a feature documentary following an urban youth basketball team. Margaret produced and edited a music documentary series which launched MTV across Africa in 2005. She was previously a creative director at Universal Music. She is the founder of Beti Films.
Director/producer: Margaret Byrne; Executive Producer: Jermaine Cole; Producers: Ian Robertson Kibbe, Jon Stuyvesant; Editor/co-writer: Leslie Simmer; Composer: Eric Andrew Kuhn; Executive producer for Kartemquin Films: Gordon Quinn; Executive producers for POV: Justine Nagan, Chris White