One of the difficulties in talking about gun violence in the United States is the enormity of the problem. It must strike anyone outside of the US as particularly alien. Awareness flares when mass shooters strike like clockwork, though this overlooks the lived reality of those most susceptible to violence. Joshua Altman and Bing Liu, directors of All These Sons, acknowledge this difficulty in their choice of subject. In presenting the activity of two Chicago-based social programs, the documentary demonstrates the work done and challenges faced by the workers engaged with those for whom violence is reality.
Chicago sees more murders than New York and Los Angeles combined. Most of these take place away from downtown, in predominantly black neighbourhoods. “Y’know, people look at these young men as being a problem,” Billy Moore states in voiceover, “man, they actually the solution, if you give them a chance.” Billy works is a member of the Iman Rehabilitation Project, a group that provides an array of services to young men on the South side of Chicago at risk of involvement in gun violence. An early sequence shows a meeting of his group discussing the limits of moral action within the structure of gang life. One speaker expresses the belief that striking a member of a rival gang is immoral, but nonetheless necessary within the logic of violence and retaliation. One of the recurring ideas is the need to replace retaliation with forgiveness, the need to overstep that initial instinct.
These structural concerns are likewise well known to Marshall Hatch Jr., who runs a similar programme called the Maafa Rehabilitation Project. His is a Baptist ministry providing residential and counselling support on the West side of Chicago. Maafa is a Kishwahili work meaning “calamity” and is employed in reference to the African slave trade. Hatch, a minister, believes that an understanding of the past is necessary for building a future. As such, he has the stained glass in his church, which would have displayed Euro-centric images of Christianity, replaced with depictions based around the local, Black culture. His philosophy is discussed throughout the film, but what becomes noticeable is what goes unsaid about the Iman group. Iman is an acronym for Inner-City Muslim Action Network. This can be seen on the shirts worn by members of the group, but the lack of overt acknowledgement is unavoidable.
Hatch frequently discusses his frustrations and doubts regarding the structural nature of the problem. He states that “what needs to change are the conditions that create shooters in the first place.” The city of Chicago pays the police $5,000,000 per day while social services fight for crumbs. This is not even accounting for the $7,000,000 paid in settlements to victims of police violence over a ten-year period. In 2013, the city shut down fifty schools, most of which were on the South and West sides of Chicago. In the following years, 47% of young men between the ages of 17 and 22 would be out of school and out of work. When Hatch takes a group to city hall, it is no surprise to see that the politicians (including now Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel) are all white.
What is most striking throughout the film is just how young these men are. Laquan McDonald was 17 years of age when he was shot sixteen times by a cop. In a meeting of the Iman group, one man stands up and admits to having been shot twenty-one times in his life. The filmmakers document the lives of a few of these men, charting their path through their respective programs. Charles Woodhouse, at 23, is deemed to be a lifelong criminal. How, Charles wonders, is he meant to change his narrative when he has already been labelled? This is a question that hangs over each of the men chosen as subjects for the film. Shamont Slaughter is, at 22, pursuing his GED. When he gets frustrated, his instructor asks him to talk about what is on his mind. He shuts down, claiming that that is not how it is done “in the ‘hood.” This type of stigma around mental health is all over the film. One of the key issues demonstrated throughout All These Sons is the way structural inequality shapes – and limits – the way people think.
The system is demonstrably designed to fail. During the course of the film, Charles is placed on house arrest, meaning he cannot attend the meetings of the Iman group. He is punished in the process of seeking to change his life. The structure that keeps police on the streets and schools closed refuses to untangle the contradictions that punish those who need help. All These Sons is a death-haunted, though ultimately optimistic, portrait of those working and living within a system that does not want them to succeed. Billy Moore and Marshall Hatch, and untold more, work to secure life for those who otherwise only know death.