"All These Sons," which has its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, considers the topical issue of gun violence and its impact on Black communities in the South and West sides of Chicago. Co-directors Joshua Altman and Bing Liu (the latter Oscar-nominated for his doc, "Minding the Gap") shine a light on Iman and Maafa — two programs run by Billy Moore and Marshall Hatch, Jr., respectively — that work with young men at risk of becoming either victims or perpetrators of gun violence. Both Iman and Maafa create a safe space for these men who are often looking over their shoulders, or at every car that drives down their street, in fear of gang violence.
The men are put to work physically and emotionally. They do construction jobs to rebuild houses, or clean sidewalks. But they also are asked to write stories about their experiences with gun violence in the community and participate in exercises that address morality in certain situations. They talk about forgiveness. Some young men work to finish high school. One participant slips and ends up under house arrest on a gun charge.
Altman and Liu's strength as filmmakers is not just that they humanize these men, who viewers will come to care about, but they raise discussions about families and absent fathers, a lack of education (50 schools in South and West Chicago were closed) as well as the systemic oppression and the negative messages that set these men up to fail. Moreover, the film's participants talk about their attitudes towards the police who should protect them, but instead make them feel that they are in constant jeopardy.
Altman and Liu spoke with Salon about their hopeful documentary.
How did you learn about these programs and select the participants for your film?
Bing Liu: Back in 2017, I got a call from Davis Guggenheim. 2016 was a year of record gun violence in Chicago. It was making national headlines. It was the worst statistic for 20 years. His friend Arne Duncan [visited] Cook County jail and some of the neighborhoods that were most affected and asked the guys, "What can we do to curtail the cycle? The overwhelming majority of respondents said, "We just need work. We need a way to make money in the legal economy." He concocted a program to try address that, and other issues, such as trauma, and housing, and a laundry list of different things that contribute to violence. He was kind of building a plane as he was flying it in this pilot program. When Davis called me to explore doing a film on this program, I went and shot a few days and came back to Venice, California, to meet Davis and they introduced me to Josh to edit the materials and we developed this film from that. Josh came on to edit "Minding the Gap," and we learned we worked really well together. By the time this turned into a feature, the program was all over Chicago. We eventually landed on these two programs, Iman and Maafa, but they are part of a large block of programs all over the city.
There is a real sense of brotherhood among the men in Iman and Maafa. Can you describe how you gained the trust of the film's subjects to tell their stories? One participant, Zay, talks about how he is not able to trust folks.
Josh Altman: We filmed over 450 hours of footage over the course of many months, building trust, showing up, being there and listening and talking to people. Eventually, it just became this thing where they sort of expected us to be there, and we had to navigate and choose who was going to be in the film. They sort of choose themselves, or the camera chooses them. The way that they shine or talk about things with us. We interviewed almost everybody. There were multiple people we filmed full storylines that didn't make it into the final cut. Along the way, the camera latches on people and the trust became deeper. It's not just filmmaker-participant it is a lot more, I'm your friend. Let me put down my camera and help you out with this.
Liu: With Zay, specifically — not every participant was like this in the program — he was more trusting one-on-one versus being in a group because of the level of posturing the young men put on in a larger group. It's kind of a defense mechanism. The first time we sat Zay down for an interview, he was wildly open and mature in a way that wasn't that surprising. I was surprised by how quickly he opened up.
All of these men want respect and opportunity. They learn to "act different and define themselves differently." Can you talk about that aspect of your film?
Liu: It's interesting all of the rhetoric around gun violence tends to be really simple. So much of what this film is trying to show is that the willingness and the desire to want to change is there. All the conditions and all of the repetitive things that pop up in their lives — whether it is a miscarriage, or losing a friend, or getting shot yourself. Marshall says it best when he says these programs are "just a Band-aid for a bullet wound." They can only do so much. These guys signed up for the program. They want to be there. The challenges are the conditions around them.
Altman: The emotional baggage of what they have gone through in their life, or their families have gone through, the restructuring and way they view the world, is built upon these new relationships. Having people show up for you who aren't related, who don't have to be there. But they do care, and they show up and are there for you. They get let down as the people who are trying to watch out for them and show their love, but they are lifted up, as well, when they see someone get a diploma. Marshall says, "When I talk about fate, as long as there is life, there is positive possibility." That is the way he looks at all of this. As long as someone is still alive, good can come from it.
There are discussions of gun violence in the film both by victims and perpetrators. Can you discuss the idea of power here related to how the community sees the cops? There's a great line in the film about "understanding our power in relation to theirs."
Liu: A lot of these guys have very little faith in any institution that middle America buys into. Most of these guys don't have bank accounts. There is no real institutional trust. That extends to politics and to preventing crime, which is through the police. We hope our film tries to instill and inspire in society writ large, is to focus this conversation on the "problem of gun violence" less on the problem being on specific guys, but the problem of either responding or holistically addressing — which is preventing — gun violence in the first place.
How much funding and budgetary allocations do we put towards police and prisons? That's where the conversation stops. These programs are all over the place and have their own inconsistencies, so we talk about these programs as preventative measures, but we want to have a policy and social conversation about what prevention looks like. It's this larger grappling with power in society. For me, Marshall is also asking that of all of us.
Altman: In terms of power, part of the reason these guys operate the way that they do on the street is out of a need for power and be in control of something in their life. So much feels so out of control — prison, where they live, their jobs, the schools not being there, and not knowing that they can vote. When they have something where they feel they can take power, albeit in an aggressive street way, it's satisfying that human need. We all want some semblance of power, to be in control of things. So when you put somebody in a position where there's nothing, they are going to look for other avenues.
In contrast, there is an upbeat episode where the group takes a road trip to Washington DC and the men feel they can "be themselves" and not look over their shoulders. Most of the film's participants barely leave their blocks or the city. How did seeing more of the world, being exposed to museums, and visiting Howard University impact and inspire them?
Altman: It was a huge breath for everybody. When we started this film, we met a lot of people and they would tell us they haven't been downtown or left their blocks. You think, that's not really true, but a lot of people are cloistered in this way. It was interesting to be around them and see that there was no longer this worry. We were in Chicago waiting for some food and one of the guys had to put on a mask, because he can't be seen in the neighborhood. It was 10 blocks maybe less from where he lives. So, to go to DC, and have all that disappear, that there was no worry that someone would do them harm, was amazing. They bonded as a group. It was a huge release.
The film touches briefly on the influence of gangs on these men. Can you explain why this is a subtext in the documentary, and not a larger theme, given its importance in this community?
Liu: Not the same as it was in "The Wire," or that era. There are no longer the large gangs that control a network of money, income, and hierarchies on different levels. It was splintered by the arrests in the '90s and the breaking up of these gangs from the Chicago police and FBI. It's so much about friends creating cliques that are inspired by someone getting killed, or the name of a block you that lived on or grew up on or built networks or chose family relationships. The other side is the Chicago police that has maintained a gang database for decades. There have been reports on how corrupt it is. There are 70-year-old men and deceased men on that database. Iman is doing policy advocacy pushing to demolish the gang database. Judges are starting to smarten up and the dispelling of that traditional label. Billy Moore was labeled a gang member by the news. He was not in a gang but because he murdered Ben Wilson and they were looking for him, all the reports called him a gang member. It came from the fact that the city hated him. It was another tool law enforcement can use and has used to get tougher sentences and justify brutality.
Altman: We are very sensitive to the word "gang" because of the way it demonizes people.
Lui: Another program seen in the film is about doing storytelling to change the narrative to pitch to judges and for police to see that these are the stories from the community. That's what Zay was pushing back on. Josh and I were drawn most to this subprogram during development. It's storytelling. My girlfriend is a public defender in Orange County, and she tells a certain narrative about her clients to a judge so she can humanize them. And the DA does the opposite.
What may be the saddest fact in your film is that so many of these young men receive negative messages — that they will never amount to anything more than a drug dealer, or that they will end up in prison. But your film and these programs emphasizes potential, redemption, and change. Can you discuss how young Black men can break the cycle of violence and self-destruction?
Liu: The solution does start with them; at the same time, these programs are just half, if that, of the equation. Going back to that Marshall quote, "These programs are just temporary Band-aids." We need to look at the conditions that produce shooters in the first place. The solutions are there and desire to want change is there. Take 30 police officers out of public schools and you have enough to fund these programs for a year or two. Allocation inequality is pretty damn drastic.
Altman: There is an abundance of people showing up to be in these programs; they can't even take them all. They have to limit themselves. The programs technically run six to nine months, but they are with these men for their lifetime. They are building relationships, and they are going to be there forever. But they can't pay you forever, and they only have this amount of time that they can work within this program. Six to nine months is nothing in the formative years of somebody's life. Most people go to college for four years, so if the program was four years, maybe that would have more of an impact. But there is no funding for that. The onus is not on the [men] but the big part is on us as a society. We need to invest in these neighborhoods and show people that you care about them and put some options for them on the table. Driving by these places and seeing their schools closed transmits the image that no one cares. It's a horrible feeling. It's about looking at people in the community doing the work. We met so many amazing people who were on the ground doing the work. Listening to them and hearing their stories, we want more people to hear this.
What can you say about the idea of Sankofa that is espoused in the film?
Liu: The national conversation that touched upon that debate on both sides of the political aisle around the 1619 Project and how we reckon with this country's past. That's one part of it. The film deals with that part Marshall is interested in. But the other part is personal sort of reckoning. A lot of people are familiar with the feeling of having something unfair done to you, or having someone harm you. But there's another aspect, which is known as moral injury, which is admitting and reckoning with the fact that you have also hurt people and have done very wrong things to people. That's a part of reckoning with the past, too. That's what is so interesting in how Billy tries to introduce this idea of forgiveness in the film. It about both those parts. All three of those aspects are very present in the film.