‘All These Sons’ Review: A Moving Gun-Violence Doc That Gains Power as It Loses Illusions

Three young Black men enroll in outreach programs dedicated to helping them escape their Chicago communities' legacy of gangs and guns.

All These Sons
Courtesy of CPH:DOX

The act of making an observational documentary is built on hope. Or at least, on the slightly reckless faith that once the cameras are rolling, patterns and arcs will duly emerge, coalescing into insightful, manageable storylines that can with luck be shaped to deliver an uptick of optimism. Joshua Altman and Bing Liu’s “All These Sons” certainly starts off in that vein, introducing us to its cast of characters — all men from Chicago’s South and West sides, involved in one of two programs addressing the scourge of gun and gang violence in the city — with the familiar energy of the urban social issues doc, promising illumination, hard-won wisdom, maybe even inspiration. Then the ambivalence of real life starts to tarnish that shiny promise, and “All These Sons” becomes a far more interesting, far less simple film.

The two programs targeting local at-risk youth are both loosely faith-based: the Westside’s MAAFA Redemption Project led by Marshall Hatch Jr., the charismatic son of a local Baptist pastor, and the Southside’s IMAN (Inner-City Muslim Action Network) run by the tirelessly invested and compassionate Billy Moore. When talking about the way gun violence can blight a young life, Moore knows whereof he speaks, having served 20 years in prison for a locally notorious murder, which is relayed to us in stark archive footage. Moore’s history, and his current vocation make him uniquely placed to observe a system that, he says, likes to “look at these young men as the problem, when they’re actually the solution if you give them the chance.”

As we’re introduced to the outreach work the two programs engage in — everything from group therapy to writing workshops to construction training remodeling derelict sites — three participants come into focus. Gregarious and personable, Charles Woodhouse is rueful in relating how the judiciary considers him a “danger to society” and incredulous that at 23 he can be termed a “career criminal.” Zay Manning is a surlier presence at meetings; when Moore asks the group who believes they “deserve to be forgiven,” he does not put up his hand. And Shamont Slaughter eventually emerges as the film’s central character — with his tattooed face and tragic backstory (his beloved brother was killed at 17), it’s his tenderness toward his pregnant girlfriend and earnest desire to get his GED that betrays the sensitivity beneath his swagger.

Halfway through, the film crescendos with a bus trip to Washington, D.C. and Howard University. Shamont, who has never before left Chicago, seems especially struck by the broader horizons that open up during these few days. “I felt like I was in a movie,” his quietly heartbreaking voiceover tells us, “No one was gonna shoot at us. I wanted it to be like that for the rest of my life.” But back in Chicago, enmired in an intractable intersectional tangle of racist policing, territorial turf wars, absent role models and ever-prevalent gun violence, even this most modest of ambitions begins to seem like an unreachable dream.

From the beginning, the bluesy blares of Kris Bower’s soulful jazz score have suggested a more fatalistic point of view, and despite Hatch and Moore’s best efforts to convince attendees that there are opportunities available if they put in the work, in the film’s latter portions the tone darkens. The two leaders speak of the challenges their programs face, in terms of funding and resources, and the creeping sense they both have that so much of what they do is a tantamount to “a band-aid on a bullet wound.” Meanwhile Zay, Charles and Shamont all suffer setback after setback, even becoming occasionally fractious in their interactions with the filmmakers — whose deep investment (Liu and Altman also shoot and co-edit) and good intentions cannot quite obscure the fact that they are outsiders here.

In the way that it morphs into a more melancholy mood and complicates an ostensibly familiar narrative, “All These Sons” is similar to Bing Liu’s superb last film, “Minding the Gap,” which smuggled a devastating portrait of masculine crisis and the domestic violence cycle into a coming-of-age skateboarding memoir. In its admiring, but never overblown take on the MAAFA and IMAN programs, it is sometimes similar to Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’ Folsom Prison-based “The Work.” And in inheriting the mantle of Chicago gun-violence investigation, as well as touching on the 2018 case of Laquan McDonald who was shot to death by a white police officer, it has spiritual kinship with Steve James’ “The Interrupters” and “City So Real.” None of those touchpoints are easy or complacent watches, but even as it concludes on a note of renewal and resilience, “All These Sons” plots a different yet no less affecting trajectory. Here, there are few revelations and few breakthroughs, just the endless grind of showing up to fight the “unrelenting” forces of oppression, and continuing to talk even when, as Moore says, “it appears like they aren’t listening.”

‘All These Sons’ Review: A Moving Gun-Violence Doc That Gains Power as It Loses Illusions

Reviewed online, CPH:DOX, March 25, 2022. Also in Tribeca Film Festival. Running time: 88 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Concordia Studio presentation of a Concordia Studio production. (World sales: Submarine, New York.) Producers: Zak Piper, Kelsey Carr, Joshua Altman, Bing Liu. Executive producers: ​​Davis Guggenheim, Laurene Powell Jobs, Nicole Stott, Jonathan Silberberg, Rahdi Taylor, Shannon Dill.
  • Crew: Directors, camera: Joshua Altman, Bing Liu. Editors: Bing Liu, Joshua Altman, Joe Beshenkovsky, Jennifer Tiexiera. Music: Kris Bowers.
  • With: Billy Moore, Marshall Hatch Jr., Shamont Slaughter, Zay Manning, Charles Woodhouse.