Overview: In a rural county in North Carolina, three young men face hardship and triumph; Kartemquin Films; 2017; 90 Minutes.

The Facts of Life: There’s a striking statistic about Bertie, North Carolina presented at the end of the first act of Raising Bertie, a new documentary from Director Margaret Byrne: There are 27 prisons within a 100 mile radius of the county, whose population is predominantly people of color. In cinematic form, it’s a jarring line of text, but one has to imagine that in the real life-goings on of the county, for the residents (particularly younger males) this fact radiates constantly as a subliminal messaging, a continually communicated hopeless cultural expectation.

Byrne’s warmly empathetic film is tagged with a quote from James Baldwin: “I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.” I’m hard pressed to think of a recent film that more spiritedly lives up to its epigraph than this one. Raising Bertie paints a coming-of-age portrait that is constantly aware of the external influences that culminate to shape the identity of its three subjects—Dada, Junior, and Bud—but presents them with such personable observation that the young men’s complexity outshines all culturally and narratively shaped expectation. Byrne accomplishes this poetic imbalance through an exceptional mixture of the factual, the narrative, and the cinematic—by employing information contextualized against three stories and shaped by the aesthetic of their telling.

The Poetry of Life: All of the despair packed into that aforementioned prison statistic is as implied by image and device as it is explicit in telling: a pair of brass knuckles on a car seat, the confession of a concealed shank, the dangling necklace badge of a parole officer. The serenity of the rolling farmland and plant-life is juxtaposed against the battered buildings and humble homes of the area. The ceremonies of achievement and life (prom, graduation) are at battle with unceremonious events (prison visits, violent front yard brawls).

Even characters are foils for one another in ways that we seldom only map in fictional text. Often, older brothers, deadbeat dads, and absentee fathers serve as a reminder of how the hardship of the short-term loaded obstacle course path for these young men might render them broken perpetuating parts of hopeless systemic oppression. But these broken models of adulthood are mediated by a good faith parole officer and, more notably, Vivian Saunders, a fiery and passionate Southern every-mother, community activist, and founder of The Hive, an organizational effort that provides intervention, community, support, and opportunity for young African American men in the area. Saunders’ commitment to keeping young adults on a more fruitful path of self-guidance places her with the most heroic characters you’re likely to find in film this year.

Overall: The beginning of Raising Bertie opens with its young subjects sharing their aspirations. All three of them express modest goals (with the exception of Junior’s humorous musings about becoming a secret agent). They share dreams of landscaping, farming, becoming a mechanic, and running a barber shop. From there, in a beautiful rumination of the space between the facts of life and the poetry of life, the film moves across years to find them in pursuit of these positions while also finding love and loss. It’s a journey that teaches us that these three men are all bigger than the same of their parts, that we all are, and we owe it to each other to create a world that nurtures the best of that complexity.

Grade: A-


Raising Bertie is currently making its North Carolina theatrical run and can be seen at the following locations:

Chapel Hill, Chelsea Theater: July 1 & 2 (producer Ian Kibbe attending)

Edenton, Taylor Theater: July 7

Asheville, Grail Movie House: July 21

More information on The Hive can be found here.

Featured Image: Kartemquin Films