Trying to change societal narratives, the stories we use to make sense of our lives, is a tall order. It involves changing the way we think and see the world. And that's a lot to ask of any film — or book, TV show or play.
But that's exactly what best-selling Baltimore author and executive producer Wes Moore says he is trying to do with "All the Difference," a documentary premiering Monday night on PBS. And the film, which tracks two young African-American men from the South Side of Chicago from high school through college and beyond, has the kind of ambition, sensitivity and social conscience it takes to effect such change in viewers' minds.
It is hard not to get caught up in the daunting journey Robert Henderson and Krishaun Branch undertake as they become the first members of their families to attend college — Branch at the historically black Nashville, Tenn., and Henderson at majority-white Lake Forest College, which is about 30 miles north of Chicago. And it's impossible not to appreciate the obstacles within and without — and to start rooting for them to make it.
"Oftentimes, the narrative becomes about high school completion," says Moore, who is one of two executive producers of the film along with his mother, Joy. "And then we celebrate when we get more and more kids through high school. The thing I wanted to examine is: Why is that our goal?"
As much of an achievement as high school graduation is, it is no longer enough, the former Rhodes scholar says. He wants to set the bar higher.
"Of course, you have to get through high school to go into higher education," Moore adds. "But take Baltimore, for example. By the year 2020, 80 percent of all jobs in Baltimore City will require some form of postsecondary credential: trade school, career school, community college, four-year college, something past Frederick Douglass High School."
But, as it stands now, according to the Johns Hopkins grad: "Two-thirds of all Baltimore City graduates, six years after finishing high school, will have nothing. And that's what I wanted to challenge. If we're not talking about changing that narrative, then we're not setting up our young people for success."
Narratives can inspire and/or imprison. "All the Difference" deftly shows the negative power one narrative in cities like Chicago holds for young men who consider it a victory to simply still be alive by their 18th birthday.
One of Branch's former elementary school teachers recounts hearing a pupil say, "If I make it until I'm 18, I'm going to have a party." That sentiment of young men expecting to die young, the teacher says, is all too common in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago where Henderson and Branch were raised.
But Wes and Joy Moore want "All The Difference" to generate a different narrative of success — young people finding a way out of places like the South Side of Chicago through the college experience. And they don't want it limited to exceptionally talented young people like the Dr. Ben Carsons of the world.
"We didn't want to exceptionalize the kids," says Joy Moore, president and CEO of JWS Media Consulting in Baltimore. "Too often we categorize kids, saying, 'This one is college material, and that one isn't.' These two guys would not necessarily be thinking of college if not for Urban Prep seeing something in them and believing in them and helping them believe in themselves."
Their academic journey starts at the Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men where Branch and Henderson are upperclassmen when the film opens. Henderson seems the more motivated of the two, earning a 3.8 GPA and varsity letters in track and football. He wants to study medicine. Branch, who has been a gang member, according to his mother, says he wants to become a U.S. marshal and have a family.
Oscar-nominated director Tod Lending does an outstanding job of taking viewers inside the hopes and fears of the two as they graduate from the charter school and start their college careers. His five-plus years of exposure to the two surely helped in terms of finding moments that resonate. But the intimacy he achieved with them is nonetheless remarkable.
It starts in the film's first extended sequence: predawn in the kitchen of the apartment where Henderson lives with his grandmother, Ona Caldwell, the daughter of a Mississippi sharecropper. Viewers find out that Caldwell, who left school after fifth grade, took in Henderson and his six siblings when he was 17 months old, after his mother was killed by his father.
As a sleepy-looking Henderson arrives in the kitchen where Caldwell is baking biscuits, she quizzes him about whether he finished his homework and the person he was talking to on the phone after she went to bed last night. Instantly, the viewer understands her strength and the way Henderson's relationship with her sustained him after the loss of his mother.
And yet, life is never that simple. Later in the film, viewers get a glimpse of a deeper level of Henderson's emotional life and the pain still in his heart when he dissolves into tears on graduation day as he starts to say how much he wishes his mother was there to share this triumph.
That's the kind of layered storytelling Lending delivers. Nothing is one-dimensional in the picture he offers of these two young men and what it takes for them to earn diplomas.
Viewers see Branch allowing himself to be distracted from his studies by basketball, a campus game room and hanging out with his new friends at Fisk.
"Anything can get me off track real quick," he acknowledges.
But Lending's camera and microphones also record Branch meeting with an adviser who offers some blunt talk about what he needs to do to get back on track — advice he follows.
Lending not only captures intimate moments of campus life, he also presents them in a manner that consistently illuminates larger points about the transformative way college is supposed to work — taking in adolescents and helping them become resilient, more open-minded, responsible adults.
Branch is anchored by the sense of "family" he finds at Fisk. But viewers also see and hear the loneliness and sense of defeat he feels after he's rejected by a fraternity. And yet, even at one of his lowest moments, you know he has already developed the grit it takes to go on and keep grinding toward graduation.
The film extends beyond graduation to a new job in a new city for Henderson and a tragic experience back in Chicago for Branch. Every bit of character that he has built during his time at Fisk will be tested.
Wes and Joy Moore said there were times during the filming when they saw Henderson or Branch taking a misstep or feeling pain, and they wanted to intervene. But they knew it would compromise the documentary truth of the film.
"There were moments in both of their lives where I wanted to say something," Wes Moore says. "But I know, as a filmmaker, you can't. Because you become the story at that point. So I remember sitting there and biting my tongue watching them make decisions and wanting to say, 'There are things you should be thinking about.'"
Moore says he hopes "All the Difference" will lead young adults like Henderson and Branch to think that "going to college is a worthwhile path that can offer new opportunities if they are willing to put in the effort and persist."
But he also hopes a larger audience will be left thinking about the "structural barriers still standing in the way, whether it's the incredible social transition for some or the challenges of financial aid."
"All the Difference" will make viewers think, no doubt about it. It will also make them feel and maybe even care about these two young men and their struggles.
That's a lot to expect of any film.
"All the Difference" premieres at 10 p.m. Monday on MPT. It is also being streamed at pbs.org/pov/allthedifference through Oct. 12.