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 Country 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, for individual reasons, been bounced out of the district’s high schools. Saunders’ 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.
Raising Bertie is an intimate six-year portrait of three African American boys growing into adulthood in rural North Carolina, exploring complex relationships between generational poverty, educational inequity, and race.
Few films or lives boast a truth teller who makes the stakes more powerfully stark than Vivian Saunders does early in