SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Young men living in gang-infested inner cities is commonplace in most large cities in the country.
Not so common are the stories of the few who make it out.
As Krishaun Branch was completing his final year of college, his 17-year-old younger brother was shot to death in their hometown of Chicago.
The tragedy brought a bittersweet ending to “All the Difference” a PBS documentary that was shown to young men and women connected with California mentor organizations July 28 at the Nate Holden Performance Arts Center in Los Angeles.
“All the Difference” explores five years of the lives of co-stars Branch and Robert Henderson. It is a hood story with a happy ending.
Those attending the L.A. premiere of the documentary that debuts on air next month were engaged and emotional.
“My friend was crying and I was trying to be strong,” 18-year-old Stevon Anderson said. “I feel like they were speaking for me, too. I grew up in Compton and they grew up in Chicago. They’re just different people in different cities but their stories are exactly like mine.”
According to Anderson, who has close connections with West Side Piru, a Los Angeles and Compton gang, thug affiliation is a tradition; the inner city is a place where lives of youth can be likened to those in war zones.
To them, the death of Branch’s younger brother wasn’t out of the ordinary nor was that death the only tragedy uncovered in the documentary.
“All the Difference” captures the success of Branch and Henderson, who not only graduated from high school, but also completed college.
According to a report on public education and black males, only 47 percent of black men in the United States graduate from high school.
“We’re sitting with two people that when you talk about pure statistical categories; finishing college in four years, first in family, under resourced — we’re sitting with two people who frankly statistically are anomalies,” said Wes Moore, executive producer of “All the Difference. “These stories need to be told and not just stories of black incarceration.”
After the premiere, filmmakers and co-stars formed a panel on stage led by Mary Jane Stevenson, vice president and director of City Year Los Angeles, a mentorship program that also helps at-risk youth succeed.
Stevenson said “Part of the success of this film was the community that was built here tonight.”
There was a show of hands clapping when she asked the audience: “How many of you were inspired to go for completion and inspired to maybe take a different path now?”
Several members stood and expressed gratitude for Branch and Henderson’s transparency with telling their story. They each marveled at the similarities to their own lives and felt hope and inspiration.
After taking it all in, his sentence broken with emotion, Branch said: “You … said the words that I wanted to hear from my little brother. I didn’t get that chance.”
Out of the crowd, another young man stood before the microphone and said: “In the black community, smart guys are not considered as favorably as those who are athletic. We have to begin to change this perception.”
As the co-stars mingled with the audience, one young man asked the co-stars how they dodged their hood friends and stayed out of trouble? The answer was mentorship, communication and perseverance.
Anderson could answer that question as well.
“They really didn’t understand why I was studying so much, but as I began to progress and show results they began to respect me more,” he said. “When I come back and they see me. They’re like ‘I’m so proud of you.’”
Branch is now a recruiter for Urban Prep, the school he attended in Chicago, and Henderson is an elementary school math teacher. Comparatively, Anderson is a sophomore at Morehouse University and is recruiting for a mentor organization in South Los Angeles.
“I think the common thread that we saw with these two young men — and with any young person that succeeds — is high expectations,” said Joy Thomas Moore, who was co-executive producer of “All the Difference” with her son, Wes said. “If everyone has higher expectations for young people more kids will succeed.”
Wes Moore said he wants the world to appreciate the importance of completion. He believes that families must take completing college more seriously.
“All the Difference,” airs as part of the POV (Point of View) documentary series, on PBS Sept. 12. Now in its 29th season, POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series and the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.