'Raising Bertie': Film Review

Courtesy of Kartemquin Films and Beti Films
An illuminating look at a black community's rural realities.
6/9/2017

Margaret Byrne’s documentary is an intimate portrait of three teenage boys in rural North Carolina.

At the helm of her first feature-length documentary, Margaret Byrne set out to chronicle a year in the life of the Hive, an alternative school for at-risk boys in the rural and predominantly African-American county of Bertie in North Carolina. Then the local school board shut it down. Byrne stuck around, though, and her mission morphed into an open-ended project. With Raising Bertie, she brings a rarely glimpsed corner of the country into focus. Following three teens over a six-year period, through adolescence into manhood, she lets their stories unfold, drawing in the viewer while challenging assumptions. 

Through Byrne’s attentive lens, the natural beauty, economic isolation and bitter history of Bertie County are powerfully clear. In a region that offers little in the way of employment or recreational opportunities for its youth but no shortage of prisons, a simple image of cotton being harvested is loaded with meaning. In Bertie’s farms and nearby chicken-processing plants, Byrne puts faces on a labor force that helps to feed many Americans and generally goes unseen and unheard. 

On the basis of the scenes Byrne captures in the Hive’s classrooms and on a field trip to two historically black colleges in Virginia, the program is a model of community-based education and mentorship. Its founder and hands-on executive director, Vivian Saunders, comes off as nothing less than heroic. So, too, do the strong women raising their sons. When the Hive loses its funding, you can feel the film falter a bit as it reorients itself, not unlike the central trio, who are thrust back into the public school system where they’d struggled. 

At first you hold your breath to see the teens trying to stay afloat in the larger school, especially when an irritated David “Bud” Perry, the oldest of the three and a high school senior at 20, bullies another student and later gets caught with a shank. 

The youngest of Byrne’s subjects, Davonte “Dada” Harrell, holds steady while dealing with acute disappointment over his parents’ separation and his troubled father’s neglect. Harrell’s paternal connection to his incarcerated brother’s toddler son is one of the most affecting aspects of the film, observed with piercing sensitivity. During a prison visit, the little boy is uneasy around his father, and curious about the strange doors made of heavy metal bars. 

Another prison visit that Byrne captures is an emotionally charged reunion between Reginald “Junior” Askew and his father, who was convicted of murder and has now found religion. Small of build and full of swagger, Askew is being raised by a mother who demands the best of him, always vigilant even while working three jobs and straining to pay the bills. 

The prison scenes resonate against the workaday concerns that are the chief focus of Raising Bertie. The experiences and challenges of the rural poor might make it into the national conversation as an abstraction, but rarely with the specificity of this intimate portrait of a black community. Byrne illuminates the business of growing up amid constraining financial and social realities. Engaging and candid in very different ways, Perry, Harrell and Askew are thoroughly involving subjects, and as they grow into adulthood and begin to build families of their own, their resilience shines.

Production companies: Kartemquin Films, Beti Films
Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky
Director: Margaret Byrne
Screenwriters: Margaret Byrne, Leslie Simmer
Producers: Margaret Byrne, Ian Robertson Kibbe, Jon Stuyvesant
Executive producers: Jermaine Cole, Gordon Quinn, Justine Nagan
Director of photography: Jon Stuyvesant
Editor: Leslie Simmer
Composer: Eric Andrew Kuhn

97 minutes

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