Margaret Byrne’s Raising Bertie takes a cinema verite look at race and poverty in rural North Carolina. It’s an approach that leads to an intimate and even nuanced portrait of three young African-American men struggling not only to find themselves but to pull themselves above their station. As this is very much in the verite style, Raising Bertie is very dependent on how much that approach appeals to you.
I’m on the fence about how well it works. On the one hand, Bertie is a documentary that pushes past talking heads and inundating the audience with information, while also creating a personable portrait of struggle. At the same time, however, the film moves in and out of its subjects’ lives with little to no context, leaving little to chew on once the credits roll and the film has left these men behind.
The film follows Reginald, Devonte and David, who all live in rural Bertie County near the coast of North Carolina. When they’re first met, they’re attending an alternative school that’s soon to close due to lack of funding. Each has his own dreams of growing up, getting out of high school and living his own life, but it becomes very apparent very quickly that it’s not as simple as that. All three have strenuous home situations and complicated relationships with family members, not to mention obvious economic hardships that make opportunities sparse.
The film — in true verite style — doesn’t go into the hows and whys of all of this, expecting the viewer to already have a level of informedness and to have a built-in amount of empathy for its subjects. I can’t imagine Raising Bertie swaying any hearts and minds, but it doesn’t want to — it’s far removed from being an activist documentary. It’s the kind of movie that wants nothing more than to present its subjects on honest terms, to view and not comment and never interfere. This is a tad disingenuous, since editing the footage presents the footage in a way decided upon by the filmmaker.
This isn’t to say that the film is a failure on any mass scale, but it does feel a bit formless. You do get to know and understand these men in very quaint, intimate terms, but I’m not sure what Bertie has to say beyond this portraiture. It’s an especially frustrating experience because it feels as if the movie wants to have it both ways, to be political, but by standing back in the distance.
Seeing as how the film’s topics of class and race are inherently and unavoidably political, it feels like a glaring flaw. Raising Bertie still stands as a very human story of struggle, but its foundation keeps it from greatness. Not Rated. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.