The opening of “All the Difference,” a documentary on the public television show “POV” and the kickoff of PBS’s Spotlight Education week, could be ripped from the news in Chicago on almost any night.
“We’ve got shots fired over here,” a police radio blares as officers respond to trouble in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. This is a neighborhood, one elementary school teacher says in the film, where many young African-American children set no more of a goal than to make it to age 18.
But this documentary is not primarily about the gang violence on Chicago streets. It is about two students from Englewood who set their personal goals higher than making it to age 18.
“All the Difference,” a 90-minute film directed by Tod Lending, appears Monday, Sept. 12, at 10 p.m. Eastern time on PBS stations. (Check local listings.)
At the beginning of the film, Robert Henderson and Krishaun Branch are about to graduate from Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, where the boys wear uniforms and get lots of mentoring.
Branch was once a member of a gang. Henderson’s mother was killed when he was young, and he was raised by his grandmother, who was once a Mississippi sharecropper.
Henderson matriculates to Lake Forest College, a predominantly white institution in Chicago’s northern suburbs. In his freshman biology class, he is one of four African-American students.
His white classmates, he says in the film, “look at me like, ‘Oh what the heck are you doing here?’”
He is soon struggling in his chemistry class, a course he needs for his biology major. His counselor asks what the problem is. Henderson is juggling academics, a brief foray on the football team, and his two work-study jobs, which he needs to pay his bills.
Branch, meanwhile, has chosen to go to historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., which feels “like a family” to him, he says.
But social distractions of college life soon prove challenging for him. He is disappointed that he is not accepted by a Greek organization he had hoped to join.
The film moves briskly through the two students’ four years of college. Both continue to face academic challenges. But both persevere and reach graduation. (I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler when it’s noted right in the program guide listing, and it is what one would expect from a documentary that PBS is running in its Spotlight Education week.)
We also see them as they seek jobs while still in college and their first steps as graduates.
Both choose positions in which they can give back, though Henderson’s job takes him away from Chicago, while Branch returns to his hometown, where he faces a family tragedy.
Longitudinal documentaries are among the best ways to tell the stories of education. “All the Difference” suffers a little from the perhaps-impossible standard of not being the length of “Hoop Dreams.” That 1994 film clocked in at nearly three hours as it followed the education journeys of two black students from the inner city of Chicago through more than five years of middle school and high school.
But the POV documentary is still an inspiring and insightful look at what it takes for students from a tough neighborhood to get through the college years.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.