Margaret Byrne’s Raising Bertie opens with an aerial survey of Bertie County, North Carolina, a predominately African-American town where a tattoo parlor and a Dollar General appear to be the cornerstones of local culture. Set to a soundtrack of nondescript guitar strings and piano keys, these shots announce a film that’s satisfied with providing a hackneyed frame for the travails of families living paycheck to paycheck and whose children are housed within an educational system that lacks the infrastructure to ensure people’s upward mobility. It’s a pity, because the reportage of Raising Bertie, which follows three black teenagers at various stages of their emotional and psychological development, thrives when providing the teens a forum to express themselves. Byrne’s empathetic camera only goes so far, however, as the film’s restrictive viewpoints and limited overall outlook insist on keeping matters of governance and bureaucracy almost entirely off screen.
The three primary subjects all attend The Hive, an afterschool program created by Vivian Sanders, a local woman committed to hosting educational rehabilitation sessions given the rising number of teens being held back for entire years within public schools. Initially, Reginald, Davonte, and David are introduced as Bertie County teens grappling with the demands of approaching adulthood. As Reginald searches for a local job, Davonte ponders whether his father, who’s recently left his mother, still cares for him. Meanwhile, David considers what his future holds as he contends with probation stemming from a prior conviction and the prospect of potentially attending college. The interlocking stories eventually take greater shape through The Hive, which is in danger of losing its funding due to concerns from the local school board, whose members question the program’s educational legitimacy.
Although Byrne never explicitly states support for The Hive’s value in its subjects’ lives, the film, which keeps its camera focused on Sanders as she encourages locals to “fight” for the program’s survival, positions her as a valiant figure in relation to Dr. Crawford, the county superintendent, whose brief appearances reveal an administrator who’s dismissive of Sanders’s value and abilities. Unfortunately, Byrne doesn’t pursue the debate over The Hive’s value any further; after Crawford states that The Hive is no more, the film shrinks rather than expands its focus to chart how each teen fares over the next several years. The decision makes the second half of Raising Bertie into a more familiar profile of poverty and hardship rather than a multi-faceted examination, and draws on similar trajectories as Rich Hill and Fed Up.
The approach makes a fundamental break from a greater ethical consideration of representation by abandoning a focus on the factors that contribute to the creation of systemic poverty. Once Reginald drops out of high school due to his failing grades, Byrne follows him through his daily routines, whether he’s shooting at empty beer cans or getting into fistfights on the front porch of a neighbor’s home. Such a sequence of events only serves to reinforce clichés of how idle time for those facing a future of poverty turns to violence. (Reginald commits simple assault after dropping out of high school and the film plays up his potential for violence.) Byrne becomes transfixed by behavior and procedure rather than trying to articulate how deeper levels of neglect and economic inequality persist through generations.
The premise of Raising Bertie, then, is that making these teens visible in their aspirations, desires, and fears provides a means to empathize with their plight. The documentary mistakes its access to quotidian behaviors as evidence of the need for comprehensive educational and financial reform. Yet by the film’s conclusion, any articulation of this system and its moving parts remains at arm’s length, because instead of identifying Bertie County as an example of a broken system and then using that recognition to spark an investigation into why institutional change ultimately proves elusive, Byrne gets bogged down in arguing for her subjects’ validity as such.