Three years ago, Bing Liu made his mark on the documentary scene with his deeply personal debut feature Minding the Gap. Following the lives of himself and his two skateboarding friends as they approach manhood, the Oscar-nominated film was a raw and evocative examination of masculinity. Co-directed with Joshua Altman, Liu’s sophomore effort All These Sons once again explores the complex dynamics of young manhood. Turning his camera towards a vulnerable demographic of young Black men in urban Chicago, the film is another affecting reflection on today’s troubled youth.
All These Sons approaches its subjects under the specter of pervasive gun violence in the city of Chicago. With countless victims suffering from a relentless culture of gang-related feuds and senseless killings, the situation has become an endemic crisis primarily afflicting the disadvantaged Black populations of the South and West Side. Hoping to break the cycle of violence gripping these communities, a team of mentors establish programs to positively change the outlook and behavior of some of the must troubled young men. Among them are a trio of participants whose traumatic experiences and underprivileged environments highlight the hurdles standing in the way of a better future.
There’s a captivating honesty to All These Sons that emerges organically through Liu’s unobtrusive direction and the empathy of the program leaders. Other filmmakers may have applied a more academic approach, trying to analyze the community’s problems using statistics and historical trends. Liu, however, foregrounds the perspectives of his subjects to revelatory effect.
Indeed, All These Sons is a strong showcase for the immeasurable value of community upliftment programmes like the MAAFA Redemption Project and The Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). While the film acknowledges the ongoing issues surrounding systemic failures in educational opportunities and crime prevention, it is the utterances from the participants themselves that are the most insightful. As they confess the insecurities surrounding their disadvantaged academic backgrounds and their experiences with murder-related PTSD, All These Sons becomes more valuable than the typical social injustice exposé and “Yes We Can” mantras. As the leaders admit, the effect of these programs are rarely seen immediately. In the case of one particularly troubled young man named Shamont Slaughter, the film wisely demonstrates the limits of these programs despite the best intentions.
As we witness these young men struggle with feelings of anxiety, self-doubt and self-loathing, All These Sons begs us to reconsider our ideas of “successful” intervention programs. Indeed, one enlightening phone conversation shows the folly of the funding mechanisms which seek to save the most extreme cases of at-risk men, instead of ensuring meaningful systemic change. As Liu’s sensitive direction proves, true empathy and care is the most important factor in addressing the issue of gun violence in American cities. The progress may be slow, but this candid and uplifting documentary dares us to see the light at the end of the tunnel.