Gun violence is senseless.

Nowhere in the United States is it more prevalent than Chicago, where more people are shot and killed than in New York City and Los Angeles combined.

For filmmakers Joshua Altman and Bing Liu’s latest documentary All These Sons, approaching the sensitive subject meant dealing with the trauma and emotional scars that linger long after bullet wounds have healed.

Their focus is on a pair of social service support groups for young African American men on the west and south side of Chicago that help stop the constantly revolving cycle of violence.

At the film’s core are Marshall Hatch Jr., the son of an area priest who leads youth through a construction trades program to keep them off the streets, and Billy Moore, leading a redemption program of his own after being on both sides of gun violence, first shooting a high school basketball standout in his youth and later losing his own son in a shooting.

All These Sons also profiles the struggles of men like Zay Manning – shot during the course of the program and ready to retaliate on a moment’s notice – and Shamont Slaughter, whose inner turmoil pushes him to the brink following the tragic shooting of his younger brother.

Altman and Liu capture the immediate fear that pushes these young men into acts of aggression: a perception that a rival might be calling in friends for a hit, the need to closely watch every car that drives past looking for the barrel of a gun, the escalating do-or-die mentality that ends with the pulling of a trigger.

All These Sons showcases the urgency needed to curb gun violence in Chicago, but more importantly, it highlights the impactful, redemptive work being done by local organizations hoping to transform potential victims and perpetrators to end the cycle of killing.

Many of the men attending these programs have either known someone shot or been shot themselves, which has left long-lasting scars and post-traumatic stress that can be triggered by simply walking down the street and noticing an unfamiliar or threatening face.

By focusing not on the tragedy of gun violence but the hope of redemption, All These Sons prevents the struggles of men like Shamont and Zay from being exploitive and maintains their fallible humanity.

All These Sons doesn’t try to over analyze or dramatize the violence that haunts every moment of the film. It’s a story of hopeful redemption littered with emotional, philosophical conversations about anger, forgiveness and PTSD.

The cinematography is simple, yet impactful with an emphasis on unobtrusive, verité style that leaves the audience feeling as if they are an invisible bystander witnessing the evolution of young men moving away from a dangerous path. The visuals also do a masterful job of highlighting Chicago’s beauty in limited wide angle shots that allow audiences to feel a larger sense of scale that helps ground just how personal and intimate the stories of All These Sons are.

This is especially true during a nighttime scene on the Fourth of July, where Chicago police vans are cruising down the streets with fireworks lighting up all around them, cross cutting with images of young African American boys setting off sparklers in school playgrounds. 

What should be a glorious expression of American pride is offset immediately with news footage from the following Monday, where it was announced that 1,500 officers working overtime were deployed over the weekend and still 66 people were wounded and six died due to gun violence.

Composer Kris Bowers accents the film with a subtle, yet powerful orchestral score that helps to create the emotional backdrop for key moments.

A surefire contender for best independent documentary next award season, All These Sons should also be on the Oscar shortlist for documentary feature and will finish 2020 as one of the year’s top films regardless of genre.

Liu, who directed the terrific 2018 doc Minding The Gap, returns with something less personal but equally as powerful that will generate meaningful conversations for film lovers in all walks of life.

This review was written after screening as part of the 2021 Tribeca Festival online.

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