This film made Judge Jennifer Malkowski want to go to Africa—partly to see that adorable hedgehog!
"I'm going [to Africa] so that when I grow up I can be somebody—don't got to worry about coming to a [prison] like this where I can't see my children."—13-year-old Richard to his incarcerated father
The Boys of Baraka explores the issue of how much it takes to give kids that grow up in poor, violent neighborhoods a future…and how far away from those neighborhoods you have to take them. Africa far? Perhaps.
Facts of the Case
The Baraka School, a boarding school in Kenya, selects a handful of at-risk boys from the poorest, most dangerous projects in Baltimore to study for two years in Africa. The Boys of Baraka follows one group of these kids from the time they are selected for the program through their experience in Africa and past it to their return to the Baltimore projects.
The film focuses on four of those boys and their particular backgrounds and experiences. Richard is a shy 13-year-old who speaks maturely and acts responsibly, but has trouble keeping up in school. His younger brother Romesh has more natural intelligence and is quite the dancer, to boot. Devon lives with his grandmother because his mother is a drug addict in and out of prison. He wants to be a preacher and has already mastered the performance aspect of that profession, showing them off when he's talking about God or just hamming it up for the camera. Montrey is an outgoing kid whose personality and refusal to be "messed with" get him into violent trouble.
There is no doubt that the subject of The Boys of Baraka is fascinating and important. The opening title card reports, "In Baltimore, Maryland 76% of African-American boys do not graduate from high school." That sad, sad statistic is a reality for those boys growing up below the poverty line in violent projects. Their lives are beyond hard, their options are almost hopelessly limited, and their plight is largely ignored by the powers that be in this country. When they get a chance, they have to take it, and the Baraka School appears to be just such a chance. Like basketball as a way out in Steve James's classic documentary Hoop Dreams, philanthropic educational offerings also promise opportunities that they don't always deliver. The Boys of Baraka eloquently demonstrates the dual reality that a little bit of funding and attention can really turn things around for some of these boys, but that the problems they face are so huge and pervasive that for most of them there is no quick-fix solution.
Filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing make the bold choice to focus almost solely on the kids themselves. We are given very little information about the Baraka School, leaving some important questions unanswered: why do it in Africa? What are the criteria for who is selected? Although I was curious about these answers, I deeply appreciated the fact that Grady and Ewing did not turn this film into a story about charitable white people running a boarding school in Kenya. Those charitable white people are certainly admirable, but by keeping their camera fixed on the boys themselves, Grady and Ewing are able to penetrate their world more completely. They have more time to give us tidbits such as Richard visiting his father in prison, a heartbreaking scene that bears the weight of Richard's simmering disappointment and frustration with this man who shot his mother in the leg and consequently is missing out on 13 years with his son.
From the washed-out gray buildings and crowded blacktop of the Baltimore projects, the boys are whisked away to the brilliant colors and peaceful plains of rural Kenya. There is some great warmth and humor in their culture shock; one boy tells his mother in a video letter, "There's something better than the cat: a hedgehog," and holds up a ridiculous, terrified little furball. Out in the middle of nature and separated from familial worries and neighborhood violence, the boys go through radical transformations—though growth is a painful process for some. Romesh starts dragging his duffel bag across the soccer field one day saying he is going home. He quickly realizes that he can't walk to the airport and turns around, dejectedly dragging his bag back the other way. But by the end of the first year, he seems happy and popular and he is on the school's honor roll.
When they return for the summer before their second year at Baraka, a major crisis for the school illuminates the landscape broken promises that these kids live in. This unexpected twist in the plot keeps the film from being unrealistically heartwarming and preserves the delicate balance between hope and harsh reality that makes the film truly great. Confronted with a horrible possibility, the parents and guardians of the Baraka boys tenaciously fight for their children. One succinctly identifies the main option for most boys in the Baltimore projects: "When you send him to a Baltimore city school you're sending him to jail." These are parents that truly care and it is both inspiring and heartbreaking to see both the possibilities and the severe limitations of those good intentions that are so hard to reinforce with time and money that they don't have.
The only problems with this documentary are minor stylistic ones. There could have been a few more well-developed characters, but mostly it is just the high-grain picture quality and too-flashy editing techniques that offend. Grady and Ewing may have been attempting a gritty look to accompany the surroundings, but to me it just seemed like the distracting effects of low light or cheap cameras. Once in a while there are some ill-advised jump cuts, too, but these complaints are minor.
As noted, the picture looks gritty and grainy and the sound is only adequate. Dialogue is sometimes incomprehensible, and full subtitles are included, but particularly mumbly lines are frequently subtitled, which helps. Th!nkFilm does provide a nice array of extras. The six deleted scenes are the best kind: moderately long and informative, but not so exciting that one wishes they had been in the film itself. They show a little more about the interview process for admission to the Baraka School, a "mutiny" at the school, another Montrey punishment, Devon doing religious work in his community, Montrey and Romesh talking to girls on the phone, and Richard getting baptized. The updates on "the boys" are single-screen paragraphs with new photos that feel much too brief in light of the detailed documentary that precedes them, but they are still a nice inclusion.
The interview with Bill Cosby is short and interesting, with Cosby—well-known for his public speaking about African-American issues—analyzing the politics of the film and the situation. His suggestion is "put a body on 'em." Boys like that, he says, need someone to watch them and care about whether they succeed. Cosby also swats away criticisms that white people should not be the ones running programs like the Baraka School. He says pointedly, "If no black bodies show up, don't bitch to me about white people doing a marvelous job." Finally, he gets in a barb about President Bush, saying that the boys learned how to solve problems in a way that Bush has yet to understand, "You talk!"
Grady and Ewing's commentary track is far less lively than Cosby's brief feature. Their tone is rather subdued and quiet, but they seem to have a great sense for who the kids are. They poke fun at Richard's secret knitting habit and Montrey's obsession with girls, laughing in an easy, loving way that speaks to their familiarity with these kids. They also have a sense of humor about their work and the documentary genre, making self-deprecating comments about using time-lapse sequences and marveling at the fact that kids actually enjoy watching this documentary. "It's almost a miracle," one of them says and laughs.
Two comments from the disc's "Letter from the Filmmakers" insert illustrate the wonderful dualities of The Boys of Baraka, which is horribly depressing and tear-jerkingly uplifting in equal measures: "When you grow to love someone who is personally suffering because of the family they were born into, you feel how truly unjust life can be." Yet, "[The boys] were funny, curious and tender. Despite coming from a seemingly hopeless world, the kids' humanity shone through."
Judge Jennifer Malkowski commends Grady and Ewing for their fair, even tone and undeniable humanity in documenting an overwhelming problem and an earnest, partial solution.
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