Story by Sandra Davidson Images courtesy of Raising Bertie
I, like most of the three-hundred and some people I graduated high school with, spent my entire adolescent life between the Sandhills and the Fall Line, in the part-Piedmont, part-Coastal Plains place that is Harnett County. Wedged between Wake and Cumberland, we grew up crossing county-lines to reach movie theaters, malls and fancy restaurants (which in those days meant Applebees). Most of our childhood weekends were spent making our own fun — wandering through the woods, setting up club houses, and watching movies rented after Friday-night trips to the video store. Going out to eat meant ordering from a handful of chain pizza joints, or if we wanted something "exotic," picking up greasy sesame chicken and fried rice from the Chinese Number One.
If your family had a little money, you grew up with a membership that awarded summer visits to private pools. The remnants of segregation were alive and well in those over-chlorinated concrete playgrounds. I remember a black family friend being made unwelcome at the pool I visited. My family dropped their membership immediately, but others weren't bothered enough to change much of anything. If you were lucky, you may have celebrated a birthday at Wheels, a now defunct roller skating rink in Dunn, a once-sacred local landmark where Food Lion sheet cakes were eaten, hearts were broken, and sketchy teenagers handled a drug deal or two.
As teenagers, a driver's license and God willing a car, transformed the pothole ridden roads that wound between fields of tobacco, cotton and sweet potatoes from obstacle to adventure. It wasn't long after the tassels were turned that most of my childhood friends hit the road and high-tailed it away, drawn to the pull of city life, continuing education and opportunity. Such was life in my corner of rural North Carolina.
Life in Bertie County, two-and-a-half hours northeast of Harnett, looks even more sparse in Raising Bertie, a documentary film that offers a glimpse into the lives of three black men coming of age in a predominately black community, geographically and metaphorically isolated from most of the state. In an area where the presence of prisons looms larger than job opportunities — there are 27 within 100 miles of Bertie — and an unemployment rate nearly twice that of Wake — I’d bet money that the North Carolina of Junior, Bud, and Dada, the film’s main characters, is barely recognizable and largely unknown to many of our readers. I’d also bet their experiences reflect the struggles of many in their broader community.
Filmmaker Margaret Byrne met Reginald “Junior” Askew, David “Bud” Perry and Davonte, “Dada” Harrell while shooting a documentary about The Hive, an alternative school for at-risk young men in Bertie County. The trio had found their way to The Hive for various reasons related to academic struggles, behavioral issues and trouble with the law. Shortly into filming, The Hive lost funding and closed, forcing the boys back into the local public high school and Byrne, and her creative partner Jon Stuyvesant, to reimagine the film.
“We got an apartment and stayed several months after [The Hive closed] to figure out what the story was,” says Byrne. They interviewed community leaders and continued to spend time with the boys from The Hive. They ultimately decided to make a film about the boys. “They were just so moving,” says Byrne. “I saw their value, and I recognized they were often overlooked and pushed to the side.” She and Jon documented the boys’ stories for the next six years.
Their stories are filled with depth, complexity and challenge. The boys become men who struggle to build lives for themselves in a community where they must fight to survive and can’t afford, or fear, to leave.
Junior, whose father was incarcerated for murder when he was a toddler, is charming, charismatic, and handy. While he struggles to read and write and find a job, he repairs his bike and rewires a defunct audio system in his car. He daydreams of leaving Bertie County but questions his ability to adjust to life away from the only home he’s ever known. Despite working three jobs, his mother files bankruptcy and loses her house. Disagreements with his mom’s boyfriend force him from home and he moves in with his grandfather. He ultimately finds a commuter job two hours away at Smithfield, a pork processing plant outside of Norfolk. By the end of the film he falls in love and becomes a father.
“I’m just like everyone else in the world,” says Junior. “I may have made bad choices, but I’m not letting those choices determine the outcome of my life. I’m out here workin’, doin’ it.”
Hardened by the hood he grew up in, Bud gets into trouble for repeatedly fighting at school. Possessed by a strong work ethic, he farms cotton and tobacco and landscapes. One day he plans to take over his father’s landscaping business. The threat of falling into the criminal justice system is ever present for Bud, who never hesitates to fight for his pride and dignity.
“I want a lot of kids to see Raising Bertie… They will see we live in the country and everybody doesn’t have a lot, but we do our best to have a good community,” says Bud. “I’m a good person and a bad person, but I think people like me overall. They think we are bad, but we ain’t bad we just don’t take no shit.”
As the film ends, we see Bud as a high school graduate, a young father struggling to build a relationship with an estranged young daughter, and a farmer with ambitions of self-employment. Today, he works at Smithfield processing plant.
Dada, the youngest character in the film, is soft-spoken and sensitive. Haunted by his parents’ separation and his brother’s incarceration, Dada works hard to make a life for himself. He joins the football team to keep out of trouble, perseveres to overcome academic struggles, graduates from high school and finds his first love. He dreams of getting his barber’s license, owning his own barbershop, and traveling the world. At the end of the film, Dada meets with an official from a local barber school. Today, he like the other men, works at meat processing plant.
“The experience of filming Raising Bertie was life changing. I grew from a kid who never spoke up for himself to a young man that can speak with confidence,” says Dada. “I believe the sky’s the limit.”
Shot in cinema-verite style, the film raises complicated questions about race, education, poverty and class. The implications of generational poverty, economic isolation and educational inequity are brought to life through the stories of Dada, Bud and Junior.
“You see in these guys a lot of skills, a lot of charm, a lot of smarts — it might not necessarily be book smarts, but they have a lot of potential. It’s not necessarily realized because there isn’t great access to opportunity,” says Ian Kibbe, the film’s producer.
“[The film] is more of an experiment in emotional connection,” says Jon, the film’s director of photography.
During the 105 minute film, all three of the boys become men and two become fathers. By the end of the film, it’s impossible not to feel connected to their stories and anguished about their futures.
In the ten years that have followed since I left Harnett County, friends from home have become teachers, doctors, spouses and parents. Some have even returned to Harnett County to raise families and build careers. Others, like myself, live near enough to visit on the weekends but don't plan to move back any time soon. Some left with no intention of returning. Others who never left have spiraled into the dark corners of the rural South, entangled in cycles of poverty, crime, and substance abuse.
Last weekend Raising Bertie was screened at Full Frame Festival, a documentary film festival that brings the most dynamic documentary work to North Carolina year after year. The film moved me, and I believe it moved others. Its screening was met with a standing ovation.
Ian Kibbe says the team has been using this press tour and screenings to “create a space where we have really complicated and uncomfortable conversations about all the different layers of challenges the communities face.” In a time when political dysfunction, farcical pop culture recaps and kitten videos seems to capture and hold the media and nation’s attention, Raising Bertie fills a tremendous void. Through careful, long-form visual storytelling Raising Bertie artfully explores larger problems plaguing the South.
Rural communities are poorer, older, less educated and unhealthier than our urban communities. There is less opportunity, a higher rate of incarceration, greater incidence of single-parenting, and brain drain. Earlier this month, the North Carolina Rural Center released a ten-point advocacy agenda aimed to help the state “fully realize economic potential for our rural communities and citizens.” The agenda offers strategies for addressing the economic, educational, health and infrastructural challenges facing the 80 rural counties across the state. Recommendations include expanding Medicaid, strengthening educational opportunities, modernizing public utilities and basic infrastructure, supporting small-business entrepreneurs and recruiting homegrown manufacturing.
Intellectualizing the challenges faced by rural communities is only one step; putting a face to the problems is another. Every state legislator, every high school student and dammit, every citizen who cares about the state needs to watch Raising Bertie. Maybe Dada, Junior and Bud want to spend the rest of their lives in Bertie. Maybe they want to leave. It’s our responsibility to make sure they, and others like them, truly have a choice.