In 2018, Bing Liu emerged as an exciting new filmmaker with his soul-searching skater documentary Minding the Gap, a deeply personal treatise on domestic violence and toxic masculinity in which his own family life heavily featured. But with All These Sons, Liu takes a step back and takes himself out of the frame to focus on gun violence in Chicago, tracing the wide-reaching issue through two organizations dedicated to helping troubled young Black men.
All These Sons, which Liu co-directs with his Minding the Gap collaborator Joshua Altman, is a powerful, if slightly by-the-numbers, documentary that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers to an issue as deep-rooted and devastating as gun violence in Chicago. The problems have already been well-documented by many others, to a more extensive degree. So Liu and Altman decide to go a route that had worked for them before with Minding the Gap: the intensely personal.
The film follows a handful of Black men under the guidance of the IMAN (Inner City Muslim Action Network) and MAAFA Redemption Project organizations, two religious community groups dedicated to rehabilitating ex-convicts and former gang members. There’s Zay, who’s dealing with PTSD from getting shot soon after joining IMAN; Charles, fighting against a legal system that has written him off; and Shamont Slaughter, the closest thing to a “main character” of the piece, whose engaging personality and sympathetic plight of preparing to raise a child with his girlfriend in his gang-divided neighborhood keep the audience — and several members of the IMAN and MAAFA — invested in him even as he frequently backslides into the cycles of violence that everyone is trapped in.
But they’re all trying to break the cycle, even the founders of these organizations who desperately try to help and rehabilitate the young men. At IMAN, Billy Moore hopes to atone for the mistakes of his youth by helping others avoid that path to prison, where he spent 20 years for killing Chicago-area basketball star Ben Wilson in 1984. Moore and MAAFA leader Marshall Hatch Jr., the son of a local pastor, both know where those paths can lead and try their best to change as many lives as they can in small ways.
Clocking in at 1 hour and 28 minutes, All These Sons can’t help but feel a little brief. By virtue of trying to cover such an immense topic in a short time span, the documentary relies on the two organizations and gun violence statistics to provide the scaffolding, and as a result, the film can come off as a little perfunctory. But a central field trip to Washington D.C., and the eye-opening effects it has on the men, primarily Shamont, lends All These Sons some emotional heft. Until that moment, All These Sons offered brief little insights into its characters’ lives and acted mostly as a promotional video for the missions of IMAN and MAAFA: training men to build houses, teaching men about toxic masculinity, trust-building exercises. It’s in the trip to D.C., where the young men of both IMAN and MAAFA get to experience a life free of gang violence and targeted police brutality — at least for a few days — that All These Sons comes together.
“I felt like I was in a movie,” one of the men remarks dreamily after a night of carefree partying in D.C. The next day, the dream continues in a visit to the historically Black college, Howard University, where for the first time, the young men see a future for themselves that doesn’t end in a jail cell or a bullet. It’s a turning point for the men, and for the film. But it doesn’t offer all the easy answers, as Shamont still struggles with his dedication to self-betterment long after the trip.
All These Sons falls short of Liu’s tremendous documentary feature debut, but shows that the Minding the Gap filmmaker is capable of tackling a complicated and knotty subject with the same kind of laser-focused intimacy that he showed in his first autobiographical outing. There may be a distance to All These Sons, but its clear-eyed compassion makes it a solid and effective follow-up.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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