Over the course of six years, filmmaker Margaret Byrne captured the experiences of three boys growing into men in rural North Carolina—their daily interactions with family, friends and school. It sounds like a simple story.
“I didn’t want to focus on stories of the exceptional,” said director Byrne to PBS. “The truth is, I made a film about three kids I met and I cared about. The individuals in this story are representative of their community and they matter.”
And yet, as normal as these boys are, theirs is a story not often told. Davonte “Dada” Harrell, Bud and Junior are young black men raised by single mothers in their rural, majority African-American community in Bertie County, North Carolina.
All attended the Hive, an alternative school with a charismatic and committed leader, Vivian Saunders. And all were thrust back into the mainstream school system to sink or swim when the Hive was shut down due to lack of funding.
Telling these boys’ stories in Byrne’s “Raising Bertie,” a documentary that premiered this month on “POV” on PBS, has “drawn a lot of attention to the plight of African-American males and single African-American mothers,” Saunders said to Rewire. “It made people understand more.”
Rewire talked with Harrell and Saunders about life in Bertie after filming. If you haven’t seen “Raising Bertie” yet, be forewarned: There are spoilers ahead.
One of the best moments of “Raising Bertie” was Harrell’s high school graduation.
“I was my mother’s only son that graduated high school,” he said.
Harrell, now 23, started attending school at the Hive at 17. Before that, he struggled to participate in a traditional classroom.
“Because I was so shy, I never wanted to be the one out there,” he said.
“The school system always brushed me off. When I got in the Hive House I was like, ‘Damn, I really did need to learn that.’ They brought me back to where I was supposed to be, education-wise.”
The end of the film shows Harrell heading off to barber school, a dream of his.
But today, with a baby son on the way, he’s had to put school on hold in the interest of a steady paycheck. He now works the third shift at a Perdue Farms plant.
“I’m saving that money to go to barber school still,” he said. “I’m pretty much trying to get a push so I can do something else… I’m living check-to-check pretty much, trying to do the best I can, trying to do better.”
As much as he wants to further his education, being a full-time student doesn’t pay the bills.
“I got a lot of things that come before barber school; I got responsibilities,” he said. “Right now I just want to take care of my family. Me going to barber school right now, that would (mean) not working.”
Even with school on pause, Harrell’s future is solidifying. He recently moved out of his mom’s house and into his own place. He bought a new car.
He said freedom is what makes him happy. To him, freedom means being out on his own. And that means working for what he wants.
“I enjoy paying bills and working hard because I know that’s something I accomplished,” Harrell said. “A lot of people don’t understand that.”
Harrell agreed years ago to be in the film “because a lot of people don’t have the opportunity and the chance to do anything in Bertie County.”
“I never thought the movie was going to get this big, until we started traveling,” he said. He’s always dreamed of seeing the world.
“There’s a lot of people going through a lot of things,” he said. “Anything is possible, and don’t ever turn down your dream.”
The end of the film shows students of the Hive fixing up a home that had just been donated to house the program, giving it a chance at a new life after losing its funding.
Unfortunately, since then, the wiring of the new building caught fire, rendering the program homeless yet again, said Hive director Saunders.
But it seems the organization that Harrell credits with his success will also have a chance at a happy ending.
With funds from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, the NC Community Development Initiative, an economic development organization in North Carolina, is orchestrating a renovation of the Hive’s facility. Others in the community are also volunteering their time to help the Hive rebuild, Saunders said.
“Our CEO, Tara Kenchen, had been aware of the Hive and had lived down here for a period of time and had worked down here,” said Tyran Hill, an economic investment program officer with the NC Community Development Initiative. “It was a project they had really wanted to move forward with.”
In addition to managing the renovation, Hill said his organization is helping the Hive develop some programs that might make it financially sustainable. Even though the building is being fixed up, Saunders and all the other Hive employees continue to work as volunteers, completely unpaid. Programs are paid for out of Saunders’ and her husband’s 401Ks and chicken dinner events when people in the community pay to eat, she said.
Saunders has picked up a couple part-time jobs, one as a cleaner, to keep food on her own table.
“I’m still volunteering, I’m still making sure the Hive is up and going,” she said. “We’re still in great need of operational costs and funding. … It’s been really, really tight.”
Saunders’ devotion to the Hive and its students hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially by the ones she’s touched the most. Harrell was one of Saunders’ first students.
“She’s my second momma, she’s always there for me,” Harrell said. “She’s my baby’s godmother.”
Harrell’s son is the reason he eventually wants to leave Bertie County.
“Sooner or later, I’m thinking about moving,” he said. “I want to go somewhere else and explore the world. Everybody moves out because they want their child to have a better education. … The school system here is not what I want because I’ve been though it already, so I just want the best for him.
“There’s not another Ms. Saunders around for my son.”
Watch “Raising Bertie” on “POV.” Check your local PBS station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times. Or stream online at PBS.org.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.