Seventy-six percent of African-American males in Baltimore city schools do not graduate from high school. With parents in jail or on drugs, and a similar bleak future awaiting them, their lives are a series of broken promises. But the young boys profiled in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's documentary The Boys of Baraka, however, are inherently fearless and resolute. They do want to get out of the hopeless cycles that have damaged previous generations.
The Baraka School is an experimental boarding school in the bush country of Kenya that chooses 20 at-risk boys from Baltimore, aiming to give them an academic foundation that will enable them to get into the most competitive high schools. Mavis Jackson, a recruiter for the Baraka School, tells a group of middle-school boys in Baltimore: "Most of you have about three things that will happen to you by the time you turn 18. You might get an orange jumpsuit with bracelets, or a nice black suit with a nice brown box; the third one is you might get a black gown, a cap, and a diploma in your hand."
The strict academic regimen at the Baraka School is tough on the boys, but also gives them the attention and discipline that has been lacking in their lives. Instead of competing for who is the toughest, they compete for honor roll and dean's list. After a fight between the hothead Montrey and another boy, the crunchy white principal tells Montrey, "Don't let your anger take over." That sort of advice seems completely futile and elusive. But when the two boys involved in the fight are then forced to assemble a tent to sleep in, without any help and darkness falling in an hour, this discipline validates itself. Montrey confides to his new partner, "I know my mother told me just try to find a better way. She said she'd be so hurt if I'd be like my father. It's gonna be a long, hard run, but if you can finish it, it's gonna pay off in some kind of way."
Anyone who cares about America's youth will feel livid at the public-school system after seeing these boys' positive response to education and their underlying potential. Solutions to their situation may appear simple to some, but when a 12-year-old boy is only at a second-grade learning level, floating around invisible in a huge school with no one helping him catch up, how can he get ahead?
The images in The Boys of Baraka are dire, but it is the eccentric, charismatic boys that make the film amazing. There's the illustrious and talented dancer Romesh, the captivating Richard, the brave Devon who has the pulpit inflections of a fiery old man, and the discerning and ingenious Montrey. With disappointment branded on their forehead, they bear their atrocious home environment with maturity and fortitude. Their integrity is superior and heartbreaking. Whatever profound transformations occur in Kenya, being trapped in Baltimore is the real test, and these boys face it with equal parts hope and desperation.
Not rated. Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 and 8:45 pm Friday-Thursday, March 17-23. Also 1, 3 and 5 pm Saturday-Sunday. $4-$7.