Troubling Representations of Black Masculinity in the Documentary Film Raising Bertie

By Pini, Barbara; Keys, Wendy | Cultural Studies Review, September 2018 | Go to article overview

Troubling Representations of Black Masculinity in the Documentary Film Raising Bertie


Pini, Barbara, Keys, Wendy, Cultural Studies Review


Introduction

This paper draws on literature from documentary film, media studies, rural geography and sociology to examine the racialised scripting of rural poverty in the film Raising Bertie. Directed by Margaret Byrne, the film tells the story of three poor Black youths, Reginald Askew ( Junior), David Perry (Bud) and Davonte Harrell (Dada) living in Bertie County, North Carolina. In six years of filming Byrne developed close relationships with the young men and their families, and remained in contact with them as part of her commitment to participatory and engaged filmmaking.1 Raising Bertie was praised for creating 'empathy for the teenagers' plight' also for using their stories to point to 'a larger issue',2 likewise for its understanding of 'the intrinsic link between the political and the personal.3

Our reading differs from these affirmative reviews. Raising Bertie is problematic in terms of form and in its representations of race, gender, and poverty. It begins in an expository style, with some provision of context. However, it abruptly shifts to a subjective, observational, cinémavérité mode, with some brief poetic moments thrown into the mix. At the start it appears that the film is to be about The Hive, an alternative school in Bertie established by Vivian Saunders. We learn of The Hive's success and that it is threatened with closure. However, this storyline is not given a coherent focus. Instead, other narrative trajectories are followed, then quickly abandoned. The film also lacks defined time markers so a clear chronological sense is lost, its representations decontextualised, as Byrne intersperses the text with images from across the six years of filming.

In highlighting the problematic nature of the observational/poetic mode of Raising Bertie we build on earlier work in which we detail the challenges of representing the rural poor through an analysis of the documentary film Rich Hill (2014) by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo.4 Like Raising Bertie, Rich Hill garnered praise and prizes, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 US Sundance Documentary Competition. Another observational documentary that tells the story of being poor in the non-metropolitan United States, Rich Hill focuses on three white teenage boys living in the small, mined-out western Missouri town after which the film is named. Our critique centres on its aestheticisation of poverty which facilitates its 'othering' of the poor.5 We contend that despite the director's intent, the film does not challenge poverty, but instead aestheticises it, and fails to elaborate upon the complex factors creating the intractable problem of rural poverty.

While Rich Hill and Raising Bertie are similar in their poetic/observational form, they are also distinctly different. A particularly important aspect of this difference, and one which we trouble in this paper, is race. In this analysis we examine how the film's racialisation of the rural poor reproduces populist stereotypes about Black men, Black masculinity and fatherhood: as violent and criminal, and as absent and passive. While there are some counters to these negative representations, where masculine care, concern and engagement are demonstrated, these are momentary. We argue that the overall depiction of Black masculinity is a discourse of individual failure. Before elaborating upon this argument we first provide an overview of the literature framing our analysis, and outline our methodological approach.

Background: framing our analysis

A decade ago the study of ethics in documentary film was described as an 'emerging field'.6 Since then film scholars have begun to build a sophisticated and rich literature examining documentary's multiple and complex ethical questions. At the forefront is Kate Nash who has argued for more nuanced and theoretically-engaged understandings of power in the study of ethics and documentary film.7 Drawing attention to the specific and potentially more amplified ethical questions that arise in observational documentary films,8 she advocates for an empirical turn in research on documentary film ethics that attends to participants' experiences. …

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