Few films or lives boast a truth-teller who makes the stakes more powerfully stark than Vivian Saunders does early in Raising Bertie, Margaret Byrne’s essential debut documentary. “We’re a quarter of a mile from the jail,” announces Saunders, the executive director at a small North Carolina high school for teen boys in trouble. “I often tell the boys, ‘You got a choice. You can be educated at 117 County Farm Road, or you can be educated at 219 County Farm Road.’ ”
At 117, at the film’s start, is the prefab Bertie County school building dubbed the Hive, populated with young African-American men who have been bounced out of the district’s high schools. Saunders’s stern declaration looms over the film, which stands as a coming-of-age counterpoint to last year’s urgent documentaries about the mass incarceration of America’s black men: Raising Bertie charts nothing less than what it’s like to try to grow up free in the prison capital of the world.
One hundred miles east of Raleigh, its two-lane roads straddled by corn and cotton fields, where the Dollar General is next to an empty building that clearly once was a Pizza Hut, Bertie County is predominantly black and doesn’t offer much in the way of jobs. One boy we meet, David “Bud” Perry, works for his father’s landscaping company but vows not to stay on the farm the rest of his life. Another, Davonte “Dada” Harrell, tells us how he and his brother love to test new barbershops; he aspires one day to cut hair himself. “I am intelligent, and I am capable of greatness,” the boys declare when reciting the Hive’s “Power Pledge.” But outside 117 County Farm Road — and excepting a number of hardworking mothers we encounter — Bertie offers them little direction.
“I don’t have no role models, ’cause I just want to be myself,” says Perry in an early scene. Later, as the boys edge toward manhood and Saunders’s and the Hive’s influence wanes, Reginald “Junior” Askew announces, “I want to leave Bertie ’cause it’s boring.” As he speaks, we watch him ping Natural Light tallboys with a BB gun.
Byrne’s film, shot over six years, at first has a discrete shape: It will follow Perry, Harrell, and Askew through their years at the Hive and then out into their adult lives. What we glimpse of the courses and field trips is heartening: a hands-on education that emphasizes habits of learning, strategies for managing emotions, and the possibility of college. But thirty minutes in, after one school year, the Hive is shut down, and the young men are placed back into larger, more indifferent schools.
The film, like its subjects, now finds its attention divided, its clear thrust at risk of dissipating. Byrne’s cameras follow the young men into some classes, where we witness Perry, a twenty-year-old senior, turning bored and cranky in technical math, wandering the room, snapping at the teacher, calling a much smaller kid “pussyboy” and threatening, “I’ll fuck you up.” What’s scary here isn’t Perry’s lashing out; it’s that, if reported to officials, such behavior from a black man could forever alter the course of his life — or even end it. Perry later will get caught carrying a weapon to school, a shank, and find himself on probation but still determined to graduate.
Byrne offers us rare access to the inner lives of young men. In the opening scenes, Askew bikes down a country road and shows off for the camera the fort he’s building. But once he’s in the bigger school, he hardens, eventually running with a band of toughs who harass their neighbors for protection money. (We see one quick, abortive beatdown, and then much cheering and congratulating afterward.) His mother, Cheryl, gives him the purest hell for it, and the young man seems shaken by a visit to see his father in prison, a scene of supreme intimacy that demonstrates Byrne’s care and comfort with her subjects — and their trust in her. Still, she mostly emphasizes social context over vérité drama, capturing the essences of her subjects, their families, and their world; the effect is something like watching people you know a little age a lot — and turn out mostly OK.
Perry and Askew are gripped at times by the aimless, frustrated anger that so often seizes young men who see few economic prospects for themselves. Both, though, have options, and neither stirs trouble enough to fall into that trap Saunders describes at Raising Bertie’s start — neither is bound for the wrong end of County Farm Road. Love helps, of course: In quick, tender scenes late in the film we see the men with the young women they’ve met and fallen for. The film’s shape, at last, is that of life, of young men trying out selves but ultimately growing into who they always were at the start. Byrne captures, with exquisite attentiveness, the hard work of being your own role model.
Andrew Cohn’s Night School, by contrast, shows us the kids who grew up without getting their education — and then, years later, push themselves to earn their high school diplomas. Cohn follows three black adults in Indianapolis through a year of night courses, where they find that the world isn’t much easier on the old than it is on the young. Shynika Jakes is twenty-six, sleeping in her car and fighting to balance her school schedule with her hours working at an Arby’s. Single dad Greg Henson misses classes when his brother gets shot, but he keeps at it for love of his daughter, whom we meet at age four singing, I’m pretty!
“She’s conceited,” Greg says, laughing, before turning serious: “Her dad was conceited at one point in his life, back when I had all the good looks.”
He’s still handsome, and a quick and funny talker, but his eyes hold regret, as do those of Cohn’s third subject. At fifty-three, Melissa just needs to pass an algebra course to get her diploma; she seems stunned at times that so many years have passed.
As an introduction to its arresting, charismatic subjects, Night School is invaluable. Each commands the screen, and all courageously reveal themselves, even as they face setbacks en route to the cheering, climactic graduation ceremony. Thwarted by a pitiless background check, Henson, who has a minor criminal past, spits out a truth you hear sometimes in life but never in the movies: “Y’all say you want motherfuckers off the street — how the fuck am I supposed to get a job?” Despite his anger, he perseveres in the only way he can: getting that education, working to expunge his record.
Cohn’s film sometimes steps away from this empathetic portraiture to attempt scenes of narrative drama: A student takes a test as tense music percolates. Our subjects must turn up at the school to be told in person whether they’ve passed, in one-on-ones with officials that play like reality TV contests — “How do you think you did?” they’re asked, before the results are revealed. But Night School is potent when it stops trying to make life like the movies and instead makes a movie out of life.