By Following The Lives Of 3 Rural Black Men, 'Raising Bertie' Director Margaret Byrne Gained An Extended Family
Margaret Byrne opens up about directing Raising Bertie and the conversations she wants America to have about its rural communities of color.
There’s something special about winding up in the right place at the right time. In 2009, filmmaker Margaret Byrne made her way down from New York to Bertie County, North Carolina, a rural town with a population of just over 20,000. She was there to cover Vivian Saunders and her work at the Hive House, an alternative school for boys. When the then-underfunded program shut down mid-assignment, Byrne and her crew shifted their attention to the three Hive students who stood out to her most —Davonte "Dada" Harrell, Reginald "Junior" Askew and David "Bud" Perry — and Raising Bertie was born.
Over the six years she filmed them, the director and producer watched these teens navigate ups and downs and become men, whether that meant finishing high school and going to prom, chasing financial stability or mending relationships and starting families of their own. With the new documentary — J. Cole, a North Carolina native, serves as an executive producer — the goal was not to pass judgment on their circumstances or become a savior of sorts, but to provide a neutral eye into the quieter, less frequently covered happenings of rural communities of color and encourage much-needed dialogue.
Byrne achieved that and more. By the last take (and well into the years after the film wrapped), she ended up gaining an extended family. She now knows the nuances of their current lives and tracks their birthdays to keep up as the years go by. She knows how excited Dada is to have a son on the way and maintains a close relationship with his mother, Esther. She even hosts Keke, Dada’s nephew, at her Chicago home during the summer.
Raising Bertie premiered yesterday (Aug. 28) on the PBS Point of View (POV) channel and is now streaming for online for the next 30 days. Byrne opened up about the documentary's more difficult moments, what became of the Hive House and the conversations she wants to come out of watching her film.
VIBE: What was it about Junior, Bud and Dada that drew you in, and how did you enter their lives?
Margaret Byrne: I’d originally set out to make a film about an alternative program called the Hive [House], run by Vivian Saunders. My intention was to make a story of hope. This program was doing amazing things, and that’s how I met Bud, Junior and Dada. Then, very early on into filming, the Hive shut down. I was already invested in their lives and in their families’ lives, so we continued to film, not really knowing what this film was about. Here we are filming these guys, and basically their agency has been taken away from them because this program was really supporting them in a way that they weren’t getting support in the regular high school. I knew that we needed to spend time with them, be invested in their lives and that it was going to take years to tell this story, which is why we filmed for six years. But ultimately I had an emotional connection to them. I found this community, and it felt like I could be a vessel to tell their story.
Did those three come to you when you approached the Hive about documenting the program? How did those conversations go — were they apprehensive?
It was different for each story. We didn’t find all three of them at the same time or on the same trip. At the time I started making the film, I lived in New York, so we would go and travel down [to Bertie County] for sometimes a week, sometimes three weeks, and we really spent a lot of time down there. Bud and Junior I met at the Hive. Junior was just… I knew immediately I wanted to tell Junior’s story. He is really a poet. Bud definitely was more apprehensive. Sometimes he wouldn’t want to be filmed, and sometimes he wouldn’t show up when we were gonna film something, but ultimately I think he was really proud of being able to put his story out there. And then Dada I actually found nine months into filming. I found Dada because I met his mom and connected with his mom. I hadn’t actually seen him at the Hive before that, because there were about 49 students at the Hive. I knew that I was looking for a third character, and Dada ended up being that voice that was missing, I think, from the story.
Dada seems like a natural introvert. How long did it take for his walls to come down and for him to open up to you?
You know, it was pretty amazing, because the first time I interviewed him and the first time I came to their house, it’s the first interview you see in the film. He really opens up about how upset he is about his dad not being in touch with him, and is very emotional and cries about it. That was my first real sit-down meeting with him, so I think initially we had a really strong connection.
We’re at a time where we’re expecting these robust and extraordinary stories coming out of the world of film and Hollywood. Why did you choose to chase the nuances of a normal life? Why North Carolina?
I actually came to North Carolina because I had a job shooting a video for an organization, because Vivian was winning an award for the work she was doing at the Hive. That’s really where it started. At the time, I was also working on another film called American Promise, which focused on urban education. It’s a film that follows two African-American boys over the course of 13 years through their entire education. I just realized that there was a lack of stories being told in rural communities. Particularly, rural communities of color historically have not had much of a voice in the national media. It’s been great to get these stories out there. And recently, the Associated Press came to Bertie, I believe, because they saw the film and spoke to Vivian and other leaders in the community. My mom said, “Did you see the article in the Chicago Tribune about Bertie County?” It’s great to see that people are talking more about rural communities of color, and specifically, after this presidential election, people are realizing how important these communities are.
Speaking of North Carolina, what role did J. Cole play in Raising Bertie, and how did you two come together for the project?
I connected with J. Cole through his manager and primarily worked with Adam Rodney, who is the musical director of the film. J. Cole really understood this story. He said that, essentially, this was his life growing up. These were the guys that he grew up with and this was the story of his youth, so I think he really connected to it on a personal level. He came onboard very early on. I’d say it was the beginning of 2015, I think. It was a rough cut that he had seen. It took us about two years to edit the film, so he saw a rough cut and immediately wanted to be involved. And then Ron Gilmore Jr. produced some of the music. He’s a producer with Dreamville, so they’ve been a great team to work with.
So they helped soundtrack it?
Yeah, some of the music is from Dreamville artists.
And when you linked with the manager, did you reach out to him, or did he reach out to you when they saw the work you were doing in Bertie?
I reached out to Ib, and Ib put me in touch with Adam, who’s his other manager and the creative director. And then I had a meeting with Cole somewhere through that process. He saw multiple cuts of the film, and he’d also seen American Promise, too. I remember talking to him about that.
Over the course of the six years spent filming, were there moments that felt too real or that you were apprehensive about showing or even being present in? For instance, there’s a fight moment with some neighborhood guys that actually gets very tense with the cameraman.
There was a big question when we were editing the film [over] whether or not to include that fight scene, because obviously I don’t want to further a negative stereotype, but ultimately I felt like it was part of Junior’s story arc. It was this rough period in his life. It’s difficult to be invested in the lives of these young men and their families and know that I’m there to tell their stories, but I can’t do anything to change or really influence their circumstances in any major way. Being a documentary filmmaker is different than being a journalist, in a sense that it’s OK to get involved in people’s lives. Obviously if one of the guys couldn’t pay their light bill, I’m gonna help them out with that. There is more involvement. There’s a much deeper friendship when you’re working with people over so many years. But absolutely, there are things that aren’t in the film that we filmed, or maybe we weren’t filming. You know, it’s difficult to be in people’s lives and see that they’re going through some trauma and knowing there’s not much you can do but be a friend to them.
Did you interject and offer any advice to the young men as they were going along, or did you just watch it objectively through your lens and let it be?
Oh, I always told them what I thought. I mean, I think that’s part of having an authentic relationship. I always told them what I thought and encouraged them to do things. I’m sure that I’m influential in their lives in some way, but ultimately I didn’t set out to change their lives, of course. Nor would I want to.
Which moments, good or bad, hit you the hardest or really brought tears to your eyes?
There’s so many things. I would say they have been there for me as much as I have been there for them, because through the making of this film I separated from my husband, got a divorce, became a single mom, moved to another state and went through a lot of things because of that, and they have also been extremely supportive in my life. I’m particularly close with Esther, Dada’s mom. She’s somebody I talk to all the time and share things with. She went through a period that was really difficult too. She’s a single mother, I’m a single mother. I’ve taken [Dada’s nephew] Keke for the summers because I’ve known him since he was a baby, and he is very close with my daughter. They’re pretty close in age, so he’s like a brother to her. He comes here [to Chicago] every summer. It’s partially [that] I want to support Esther, but also he’s like my own child in some ways, and he’s a part of my family. But difficult moments: I don’t want to get too much into it, but I continue to be a part of their lives, and we’re still very connected. The things that are happening right now even, they continue to have challenges. Bud was recently in an accident and is working hard at rehabilitation, but there’ve been a lot of challenges along the way. That’s probably been one of the most difficult things, because at one point we didn’t know if he was going to make it. He’s still dealing with health issues right now, and I’d say that has been difficult in general.
Hopefully he winds up OK. Raising Bertie is a film that doesn’t have any solutions. It doesn’t seem like the intent was to solve anything, or for their journeys onscreen to have a definitive beginning or end. Was that what you wanted, and what is the value of telling a story in that way?
I think that people need to draw their own conclusions. I’m not going to give you a policy prescription in the stories that I’m telling. I want this to be a tool to engage people in conversation. Vivian and the work she’s doing offer some solution since the release of the film. She’s gotten a $150,000 grant to renovate the Hive House, and it’s going to get more funding for operational costs for the next 10 years, so that’s very exciting. The film does ask some questions, like, who is the Vivian in your community and how can you support that person and that organization? Connecting with people in rural communities, and seeing that there’s a lot of similarities in urban communities, and we don’t really talk about that. And also talking about working with opportunity youth. How can we support young people between the ages of 18 and 24 that aren’t working and that aren’t in school? Junior is a perfect example. He is so talented with building and with his hands, yet because he didn’t have that mentor in his life that could guide him to a trade or running his own business, he’s working at the pork plant that is two hours away. Those are some of the challenges we’re trying to look at and work on through our engagement campaign. But I want people to come to their own conclusions. I want people to watch this film and engage in conversations about what can we do.
Right. It’s something that makes you wonder, what can I do once I get up from in front of my screen?
But who am I to say? I’m just a filmmaker. I’m just a storyteller, and I feel like that was my job — to tell their stories as authentically as possible. But beyond that, I don’t know all the answers.