There are 27 prisons within a 100-mile radius of Bertie County, North Carolina. Its last major employer is the Perdue chicken processing plant. It is a place of dirt roads, muddy tracks, trailer homes, sweltering heat, rows of cotton, and very little opportunity for ambitious youngsters.
It’s here that we meet three African-American boys in their teens trying to find their place in a world with odds stacked high against them — overburdened schools with few resources, mass incarceration, and a lack of decent jobs.
All three boys are the subject of a new documentary “Raising Bertie,” which follows their lives for six years while examining questions of race, generational poverty and the opportunity gap that exists in rural America.
There’s Reginald “Junior” Askew who, when we first meet him, cheekily says he thought of selling drugs to make money, but realized he doesn’t have the aptitude for it. There’s David “Bud” Perry, whose mom describes his birth as a blessing because he was “born real fat and light-skinned.” And then there’s Davonte “Dada” Harrell, who we follow as he struggles to come to grips with the dissolution of his parents’ relationship and how to express to his father what he expects in a dad.
The documentary, directed by Margaret Byrne, who came to Bertie in 2009 with the intention of shooting another project, recently screened at U Street’s Public Welfare Foundation as part of the March on Washington Film Festival.
The subjects are at-risk students in need of a little extra guidance to acquire the tools and resources necessary to build an independent and fulfilling life; tools that a lot of communities may take for granted.
For instance, during the recent screening, Dada was asked about his experience in Bertie High School. He said he was struck by how certain teachers would encourage students they thought had a shot at “making it” while others, like Dada, were ignored.
Not gifted, but not hopeless, either
All three children attend an alternative school called The Hive, a place for at-risk boys, run by a woman named Vivian Saunders. When funding issues lead to its closing, the boys are placed into Bertie County High School.
In fact, the Hive was meant to be the original focus of the documentary, but the filmmakers had to change direction when it closed down.
In a narrative that could have easily slipped into cliché, the team behind “Raising Bertie” make a point to tell a compelling and relatable tale about young men who aren’t exceptionally gifted, yet aren’t hopeless, either.
Even a storyline about an absentee father offers more depth by rewarding the viewer for recognizing the tension inherent in many familial relationships when a parent disappoints and fails to meet a child’s expectations.
The film’s creative team also does an excellent job of offering viewers a way into this story of children living in circumstances that might be foreign to most. Through universal coming-of-age themes such as teenage boredom, anxiety over one’s future, and longing for parental pride, the filmmakers help the audience identify with these subjects even if they don’t come from similar backgrounds. Many people might not have attended a rural high school, but they can recall what it’s like to be too shy to dance at their junior prom.
In one scene, a camera focuses tightly on a spider spinning a web as the sun sets in the background, while Junior gathers rocks by a country road and skips them over the asphalt. It’s this scene that first drew producer Ian Robertson Kibbe to the project. Kibbe said it was important for the creators to include vignettes that show the community engaged in everyday life.
Kibbe, who works for Kartemquin Flims, the same production company behind the 1994 classic documentary “Hoop Dreams,” said the places deep in the heart of the so-called Black Belt are too often overlooked and contain people whose stories are worthy of being told.
“Kids shouldn’t have to be exceptional to receive attention,” he said.
Dealing with the rural opportunity gap
Stories of poverty and social ills tend to focus on life in inner cities, especially when it comes to people of color. Often resources are diverted to urban areas where policymakers and advocates figure they will have the largest impact, but rural communities provide a large percentage of the nation’s food and water, and face a greater burden in providing troops to fight the country’s wars, Kibbe points out.
And what about the policy solutions for the rural opportunity gap? Advocates say the problem must be approached on multiple fronts, especially when it comes to criminal justice and education.
Dr. John King, who served under President Barack Obama as U.S. secretary of Education, was on hand to moderate a panel discussion following the screening, and said that an overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice laws is inseparable from education policy when it comes to addressing rural poverty.
“It is smarter to have alternatives to these long sentences,” King told Roll Call. “It is smarter to invest in educational programs [rather] than prison so that when folks come out of prison they have a real chance to be successful in the community. It is smarter to have reforms around re-entry so that folks are able to get a job, are able to get housing, are able to support their families.”
While acknowledging the potential difficulty of enacting a criminal justice overhaul through the Trump administration, which has not made the issue a top priority, King is optimistic that past bipartisan support from congressional lawmakers such as Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Cory Booker, D-N.J., signals that something can get done.
“Part of the reason you have that bipartisan consensus is because the evidence is overwhelming,” King said. “Even if the administration resists following the evidence, I think you’re going to see Congress stand up in a bipartisan way to keep criminal justice reform going.”