Tod Lending's documentary All the Difference, which is set in Chicago and screens this weekend at the 22nd annual Black Harvest Film Festival, is an inspirational account of black male ambition and perseverance in the face of some harsh statistics. According to information presented in the documentary, in Chicago's most underprivileged communities, only about 50 percent of young black men graduate from high school; of those who do graduate, fewer than half will go on to college, and even fewer will graduate from college within four to six years.
Lending, who is also the president and founder of the local documentary film company Nomadic Pictures (his work documenting Chicago's south and west sides includes The Principal Story and the Oscar-nominated Legacy ), spent five and a half years filming two young black men from Chicago's Englewood neighborhood—he followed them from their senior year of high school at Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, all the way through college, and beyond.
Robert Henderson enrolls in the majority-white Lake Forest College with the dream of becoming an anesthesiologist, while Krishaun Branch attends the historically majority-black Fisk University in Nashville to pursue a career in law enforcement. Both students come from difficult backgrounds—Robert's father murdered his mother when Robert was a baby; Krishaun's father's side of the family is gang affiliated—and both carry the responsibility of being first-generation college students.
I spoke to Lending ahead of the film's premiere at BHFF about his filmmaking process. Our conversation segued into his thoughts on gun violence, the power of documentaries to activate real social change, and the importance of telling positive black stories.
Leah Pickett: At Krishaun's high school graduation "trunk" party, one of his elementary school teachers says that the life expectancy of a young man in the Englewood community is "hopefully 18." What drove you to chronicle what comes after 18?
Tod Lending: I have to tell you initially: the concept was to only follow [Robert and Krishaun] for one year of high school, their last year of high school at Urban Prep.
I came across Urban Prep and thought that it was a very interesting school, the first all-black-male public charter school in the country. They hadn't had a graduating class yet, and they were working with young black men who were coming from really tough backgrounds. About 90 percent of them were entering high school two to three grades below grade level in reading, writing, and math. And [Urban Prep]'s mission was to get them to graduate high school and get them into college.
At the end of that first year, I realized this is not enough, to just show them graduating high school and getting them accepted into college. We need to see what happens once they get into college and really look at the hurdles that they face, and the struggles and the tensions. And what are the issues, exactly, in order to get them through college? That's why I decided to extend [the story] and follow them beyond 18.
How did you decide upon your two subjects, Robert and Krishaun?
At Urban Prep I preinterviewed about 45 guys. I gave Urban Prep some criteria: I was looking for young men who obviously wanted to be on camera, were articulate, were able to talk about what was going on inside of them; young men who hopefully had a sense of commitment and would really make their best effort to make it through college. I wanted young men who had interesting backstories, who had been in trouble, and also were not exceptional students. That was very important, because if you get a young man who is an exceptional student, then it's just easy to say, "That's why he made it through school, he's smart and a great student."
I wanted to find more of an average student, even below average, and Krishaun represented that student who really was not academically minded and had his struggles with academics and didn't have much confidence in that world. So I thought he was a very important character to follow through college and to find out: How does a young man like this make it through?
Was your intention to follow each of these students for five and a half years, even if one or both dropped out of college or took a different course?
I envisioned four years. Now if it took them five years to get through college, or if one dropped out and the other one was still going, I was going to continue to follow them. But I could not follow them indefinitely, especially when some funders came on board—like the CPB, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—we couldn't go on forever.
But I kind of lucked out in that my dream was to tell a very hopeful story and a very uplifting story, and that meant seeing them make it through. Fortunately, that's what happened.
Krishaun came within a hair's breadth of dropping out, but he received some additional support from [Fisk University] and some additional support from Urban Prep—his grades were suffering, so he was in danger of losing his grants. Fortunately, he got the support he needed to continue to make it through and graduate.
How often did you meet with Robert and Krishaun over the course of those five and a half years?
Boy, that is a really tough question [laughs], because there was not a schedule for meeting them. There were some months where I would go down to Nashville a couple of times; and other months that would go by and nothing was happening; and another month would come up and something was happening and I'd have to go down for a week. So it was completely erratic.
Have you kept in touch with them since filming wrapped?
Yes. I've stayed in very close touch with Robert. I kind of developed, I would say, a mentor-slash-father relationship with Robert, so we got very, very close. Krishaun and I stay in touch on a looser basis.
What have you learned from them?
The first thing that comes up for me is it was very interesting seeing two guys who were first-generation college students. The pressure that was on them was so different from the pressure that I had when I went to school. I come from a family where my parents went to college and it was just expected that of course you go to college. It's not even a big deal, it's all just part of the natural progression. Whereas Robert and Krishaun come from families and communities where it's not expected and in some ways it's an exception.
But I think that's going to change now. What's amazing is that it can change in just one generation. Robert's children, should he have any, and Krishaun's—which he does, he has one—are going to grow up, I think, more similar to the way that I grew up, with the expectation of "Of course, you're going to college." But for them one of the pressures they were facing was the weight of feeling responsible for their community and their family, in terms of being successful. And I know, especially with Krishaun, I know that weighed on him and he talked about it; we caught it in some of the interview material we did with him, [talking about how] he's not [in college] just for himself. He's there also for his community and his family. And Robert felt exactly the same way. So that was an eye-opener for me. That was really interesting.
But I have spent so many years filming in the African-American community on the south side, on the west side. I've done project after project where I'm over there and inside their communities, so there weren't a whole lot of other surprises. I've filmed numerous families losing their kids on the south side and the west side and it's always devastating, but it's also in a horrible way become a common thing as well.
What's shocking to people who don't live in those communities is how unsurprising those events are to people who live there. The normalcy of it.
The normalcy of it. And it should be so abnormal. The thing is, it's not even the new normal.
I started in 1995. I did a series that was inspired by the Chicago Tribune [series] called "Killing Our Children," and it was because of the absurd amount of violence that was happening on the south and west sides. And I remember the front page of that paper was a whole list of kids 18 and younger who were shot and killed over the course of the year—I don't remember the exact number of kids who were killed, but it was overwhelming. It was a huge issue then, in 1995. And here we are, 2016, and it's the same thing going on.
What originally drew you to tell the stories of these communities?
I grew up in [south] Evanston. I grew up in a three-flat and the family that owned the three-flat was a black family. They lived on the first floor. And I was good friends with their son and I grew up seeing my dad pay rent to a black man, which at the time was highly unusual. And at the same time they were bussing black kids into our school from north Evanston, where the largest black community was. And I just strongly identified with the black community at a very young age. I don't know if I can explain why.
Part of it could be because I'm Jewish, and there have been strong ties between the Jewish community and the black community, especially during the civil rights era. Feeling like outsiders, in some way, always feeling threatened in some way—in the case of Jews, anti-Semitism; in the case of blacks, it's racism—but always kind of like you're not fully accepted. So I think part of it is that, and part of it is having grown up with this black family downstairs, feeling close to them, and identifying with them.
And I think all the injustice that has been done to black people throughout our history has been something that has really connected with me. It made me feel a certain amount of outrage. And feeling like there are so many stories that need to be told about black families that are finding success. [Those stories] are not being told.
When I tell these stories, when I go into the black community, I am always looking for hope. And these stories have got to be told. I think we're so overwhelmed with the negative stories in the media about the horrible reality that's unfolding, and then there's the narrative that the general public is carrying: the narrative of younger black men being dangerous and violent and hopeless and uneducated and unmotivated. That narrative has to change. So that's one of the things I feel most proud about in this film, that this is a counternarrative to that. And we need a lot more films like this, a lot more stories like this, to make a difference.
I recently saw the film Southside With You, which reminds me of yours in a way. Because even though it's a scripted film about President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, it casts this positive light on the south side. It shows a counternarrative in which the south side is a community of people shown to be working together and sharing these joyous moments, and that is not a narrative that you see in the media very often.
I always worry with these films—like, God forbid, what would happen if [Robert and Krishaun] both failed? What would have happened if they both dropped out? What would have happened in Legacy if no one had made it? I mean, I don't think I could have finished those films, honestly. The last thing I would ever want to put out there is a narrative that supports any kind of thinking about failure, like, "Yeah, well, there you go. There's that community, failing again." You definitely take a big risk in telling these stories, but there are enough positive and hopeful stories that are out there to be captured and I think people need to put more energy and focus into that.
Right, and the two realities can coexist as well. You show that in your film—you show the effects of gun violence on the community, you show the statistics. And while it's true that Robert and Krishaun are statistical outliers, it doesn't mean that young black men who graduate from high school and college will always be outliers.
Yes, exactly. They're outliers, but maybe they're the new leaders. Maybe they'll be the new normal. Maybe they represent what will eventually become the new normal. I hope so.
Do you have specific goals that you hope to achieve from this film, or something specific that you hope audiences will glean from it?
When we talk about the audience, of course there are so many different types of audiences.
When it comes to young men of color, that audience, I really hope and think that this film can be a positive tool for social change, giving them a narrative that they can hang on to and that will give them a sense of hope and encouragement and belief that they too can make it to college—that they can get through college, given the right support. Again, it's not just pulling yourself up by your bootstraps—it's about having a good mentor or a good adviser at school, or a teacher or a grandparent or an uncle, just someone that takes an interest in you and continues to follow you through your progress. So I hope that young men of color—and I should say young women as well—who come from families where they are the first generation, that this story would inspire them and catalyze them to go forward and become successful, in college and in life.
And for a general audience—a white audience, not a black audience—I hope that this [film] would really make a contribution to the counternarrative that we were talking about. And during this crazy period of time that we're living in, where there's so much hopelessness, I would hope that this film would inspire and would give some hope to people.
As far as policy makers go, I hope they also will be inspired and catalyzed to provide more support for these communities. And when I say support, I mean educational opportunities and mentoring. I think those two things are enormous in terms of making change in those communities.
I think what Urban Prep is doing is huge, and that's a model that should be replicated like crazy. When that happens, you're going to see a whole new generation of young black people who are changing the direction of their lives.
Lending will appear at both screenings of All the Difference, Sun 8/7, 3 PM, and Mon 8/8, 6 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, 312-846-2800, siskelfilmcenter.org, $11.