All These Sons, 2021.
Directed by Bing Liu and Joshua Altman.
On Chicago’s South and West sides, guns and gangs are destroying countless lives. Two men dedicate their lives to educating, empowering, and healing young Black men at high risk for being victims – or perpetrators – of deadly gun violence.
Oscar-nominated Minding the Gap filmmaker Bing Liu returns with a similarly intimate follow-up doc, co-directed and edited with that film’s editor Joshua Altman, chronicling the daily struggle of Black men to forge better, safer futures for themselves in Chicago’s South and West sides.
All These Sons may lack the same propulsive punch of Liu’s debut, but nevertheless offers up another achingly affecting assemblage of deeply personal stories, mired in the backdrop of structural forces which seek to destroy through oppression.
Liu and Altman’s gaze is fixed around two reformative organisations operating within Chicago, seeking to keep young Black men away from gang activity and the inevitable gun crime that follows. On Chicago’s South Side, the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) is spearheaded by convicted and rehabilitated murderer Billy Moore, who attempts to counsel at-risk Black men and open doors of opportunity for them. On the West Side, there’s the MAAFA Redemption Project, where pastor’s son Marshall Hatch Jr. trains his charges in life and job skills.
Hurling viewers between the South and West sides, Liu and Altman glean enormous insight from both the mentors and mentees who have been surrounded by violence for most if not all of their lives. The three primary young men are Charles Woodhouse, who claims to have been shot 21 times and lives life ever on-edge; Zay Manning, who remains deeply traumatised after almost losing his life in a shooting; and Shamont Slaughter, who is struggling to complete his GED while also conquering drug addiction.
It’s painfully clear from listening to the perspectives of Charles, Zay, Shamont, their mentors, and other peripheral figures that paranoia is a major problem in these communities. The fear that an opposing gang member might pop off inspires a “get them before they get you” mindset, and an inability to ever truly relax while not looking over one’s shoulder. Even fourth of July celebrations are more a cause for concern than letting loose amid the worry that, with thousands of extra police flooding the streets, the conditions for a Black man’s death are firmly laid.
The filmmakers also do a succinct job of outlining the wider systemic issues that give rise to gang crime and violence, namely shuttering easy access to education – in 2013, 50 majority-Black schools were closed in order to plug a $1 billion deficit – the spectre of gentrification, and an over-armed police force that’s reactive rather than proactive.
But they also go deeper to examine the psychology of living through such conditions, that if your perspective of the future is informed by your predecessors and society at large declaring you won’t amount to anything, it can so easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Siloed within what they know, it takes an enormous heft of effort for these young men to self-actualise, to admit that they matter, to get out and vote, stay out of the gang life, and seek help for their abundant traumas.
With so much to work through and so little in the way of prudent aid, the chances for success seem minimal, of breaking the cycles of violence and hatred while squaring down against a system established to make Black men fail. This is perhaps most bafflingly exemplified when Charles is prevented from attending his usual program meeting due to being under house arrest, the conditions of his confinement seemingly failing to recognise his membership as a valid reason for leaving the house. After all, what can more easily incite trouble than boredom?
But there’s no single figure more fascinating here than IMAN leader Moore, who having shot and killed 17-year-old basketball star Ben Wilson back in 1984, returned to the streets after 20 years in prison and sought to keep others away from following his path.
Moore, repentant for his actions but also keen to not be wholly defined by them, is rendered in enormous complexity throughout. With his own family having also been touched by gun violence, he’s in the unique position of being both perpetrator and victim, and his experiences are perhaps the ultimate cautionary tale for those he mentors.
All in all Moore and Hatch aim to move the needle even slightly in favour of Black hope and prosperity, because if it’s moved enough times, even in tiny increments, it will affect real change. Despite the fraught subject matter, there are certainly slivers of optimism to that end; the church takes a group of the men on a trip to Washington D.C. to get away from Chicago, from which many of them have never left, and illustrate the wealth of opportunities that exist outside their immediate community. “It felt like a movie,” one of them poignantly says.
Liu and Altman, who appear to have captured most if not all of the camera coverage themselves, sensibly retain the same up-close, in-the-trenches aesthetic and shooting style that worked so well for Minding the Gap. In one instance, an interview with Moore is even interrupted by a cacophonous array of gunshots nearby.
The pair, along with their wider editorial department, pack an enormous amount of meaning into their mere 88 minutes of footage, perhaps most powerfully juxtaposing the dilapidated, rundown Chicago neighbourhoods with the new developments being created nearby, likely to be apartments inhabited by affluent whites.
Though there’s still a lifetime’s worth of work to be done, Liu and Altman’s film is tinged with just enough optimism in its final stretch to suggest that, with people like Moore and Hatch so committed to course-correcting the future of Chicago’s Black youth, the needle might be moving in the right direction.
All These Sons offers an empathetic, highly moving account of day-to-day Black survival in some of Chicago’s most dangerous and under-served communities.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.