Documentaries about gun violence in Chicago — the human toll and the people committed to trying to find solutions — are almost a cottage industry, and All These Sons plays as a follow-up to Steve James’ The Interrupters and as a parallel project to James’ recent City So Real, with the 2018 Jason Van Dyke trial featuring in each. It’s basically a sequel to Coodie and Chike’s Benji, one of the best early ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries.
All These Sons
Brief but efficient in making its sad yet hopeful point.
These projects offer the disheartening reminder that conversations fixated on death tolls and police crackdowns have been going on for decades without a magical panacea appearing. At the same time, they’re offering exposure to people who are trying to find solutions and they put names and faces and stories to people who would want to be viewed as more than just statistics or cautionary tales.
I think All These Sons knows very well the cinematic conversations that came before it and, as a result, it doesn’t carry the responsibility of being “definitive.” My biggest complaint about All These Sons is that it’s only 88 minutes; I’d have watched the two-hour or 10-episode television version happily.
This doc focuses specifically on two Chicago-area programs targeting at-risk young men, offering holistic approaches to rehabilitation and community building. On the West Side, the filmmakers are embedded with the MAAFA Redemption Project, organized by Marshall Hatch Jr., the son of a local pastor whose strategy includes putting participants through apprenticeships in different construction trades. On the South Side, we follow IMAN, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, where Billy Moore is looking to atone for mistakes of his youth after spending 20 years in prison. Anybody who saw Benji will remember, in fact, that Moore was one of the men convicted of killing Chicago-area basketball star Ben Wilson in 1984; he is part of a cycle in which he has been both perpetrator and victim.
As Moore puts it, the number of people in Chicago who will actually commit gun violence isn’t astronomical — he estimated between 2,500 and 3,000 — so he sees the tangible potential of person-to-person outreach. And as Hatch puts it, policing can only impact a situation after it’s already gone bad, but “What ultimately needs to change are the conditions that produce shooters in the first place.”
Liu, director of the spectacular Minding the Gap, and Altman, making his directing debut after serving as editor on a slew of Sundance favorites including Minding the Gap and We Live in Public, represent something of an up-and-coming documentarian dream team. Here, they confidently double (or triple) as cinematographers and co-editors.
It’s fairly certain that their youth was beneficial, because what sets All These Sons apart is how comfortably the filmmakers blend into the MAAFA and IMAN groups — whether they’re going to creative writing classes, group counseling sessions or, in the documentary’s standout sequence, a field trip to Washington, DC, that includes an eye-opening visit to Howard University.
The effort to track the two featured organizers and delve into their approaches leaves the directors with very little time for personality-building among the participants, but they’re somehow able to build out three central “characters.” Zay, who has to deal with PTSD from getting shot soon after joining IMAN, and Charles, amazingly personable despite being caught up in a legal system that written him off as unable to be reformed, are introduced mostly as sketches. Getting more time, and certain to run viewers through an emotional wringer, is Shamont Slaughter, whose deep investment in trying to change himself for his pregnant girlfriend makes him unexpectedly vulnerable.
The documentary is aesthetically clean and clear, characterized by its access and unobtrusive intimacy, a light touch that lets Kris Bowers’ horn-heavy, jazz-infused score push the story along. Brief bursts of abstract animation from Jason Carpenter don’t necessarily add much, but they play off the vibe of Bowers’ score and are never distracting.
There simply isn’t the opportunity for All These Sons to go as deep as Liu was able to burrow in the largely autobiographical Minding the Gap or in his work as segment director on James’ America to Me, but this documentary presents a persuasive argument for the aspirations of both MAAFA and IMAN without feeling like a commercial for either. It’s the approach, the compassion and the thoughtful mentorship that All These Sons advocates for. It’s hard to watch without feeling deeply and immediately invested.