Doc of the Day: The Boys of Baraka Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: The Boys of Baraka

Posted in Days of Docs by - December 17, 2011

At-risk youths from Baltimore are sent to school in Kenya in an attempt to turn their lives around.

Dir. Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing, 2005, 84 min

I could say that watching this documentary is like watching a real-life episode of The Wire, but it feels like that would be reductive to The Wire. That series crafted a peerless sense of verisimilitude, to the point where summaries of its plots and real-life news stories can often seem indistinguishable. That’s one of the reasons it’s the greatest TV show (heck, one of the greatest anythings, ever) yet made. The Boys of Baraka treads in much of the same water as The Wire. It’s set in Baltimore and follows denizens of The Other America, the part of the country that prosperity left behind. The titular boys could easily be swapped with characters from the show’s fourth season, which focused in part on middle school life in the city. The four protagonists of the movie and the four characters from the show are all trying to survive their hostile surroundings and the normal pressures of encroaching puberty simultaneously.

The boys are Devon, Montrey, Richard, and Richard’s younger brother Romesh. All of them are bright, charming, and eminently root-forable, but it’s evident that the negative effects of the world they live in are seeping in. On the cusp of hormonal upheaval, all are prone to violent outbursts and moments of disheartening nihilism about their chances in life. Subtitles inform us that African-Americans in Baltimore have a 76% chance of dropping out of high school. Or, as one educator puts it, when they turn eighteen they face three choices of clothing: an orange jumpsuit, a suit in a box, or a graduation gown. The lure of the drug trade is omnipresent, and has already affected the boys’ lives; Richard’s father is in prison, and Devon’s mother is often flirting with jail time, and even gets incarcerated during filming. The odds are stacked against these kids (but we can’t give their overcrowded, understaffed schools more funding; that’s socialism).

The boys have all been accepted into the Baraka School, a boarding school in Kenya for at-risk youth. The school, situated twenty miles from the nearest town, has no television and limited electricity. Standards are high and instructors are strict, and students go home if they don’t pass their classes. It’s as radically different an environment that the boys can get from the one they grew up in. The movie follows the boys as, gradually but surely, Baraka changes them for the better.

But here’s the thing about changing people through education: it’s nothing like the movies. If ever this story were to be dramatized, the boys would each likely be completely, unwaveringly obstinate at first, before each of them hit a contrived breakthrough that allowed them to finally open their eyes to the wonders of education and butterflies and rainbows would swarm around them in harmony! No. Change is invisible as it’s occurring. It’s admittedly less dramatic, but directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing don’t try to contrive easily digestible story beats for you. You have to pay attention to see how the boys’ attitudes and outlooks shift over time.

The movie’s only real flaw is that the school program is never quite explained to the audience. There’s something to be said for allowing information to be revealed to us along with the boys, but there are a few too many confusions that a simple interview could have cleared up. I wished to know a bit more about the teachers and their methods. I at least would have liked someone to explain just why a school for American kids staffed seemingly entirely by Americans is located in Africa.

For all the good Baraka does for the boys, eventually they have to return to Baltimore. And it’s in the last act that the film really begins to look like a Wire storyline, in all the most heartbreaking ways. That show wasn’t interested in happy endings, as it was mainly concerned with how institutions fail us. In this case, violence in Kenya forces the Baraka School to shut down. The boys only end up completing half of their planned two-year program there. Faced with the prospect of being thrown to the wolves, not all of them are able to cope. Without spoiling anything, when the film skips forward nine months to show where the boys have ended up after the first year of high school, not all of them are in optimistic places.

It’s depressing and infuriating, and it only gets worse when you realize that it’s a simulacrum of the larger social situation. But there’s always hope. The boys who do look to succeed will only fail to raise your spirits if you’re dead inside. There’s one boy in particular whose chances are a huge question mark throughout the film, and you’ll breathe a sigh of relief to see that he turned out alright. It’s an ending so upbeat that I honestly made a fist-pump. That’s the situation with youth in the inner city in a nutshell though: crushing disappointment and uplifting fulfillment walking hand in hand. It’s an emotional duality that the film expresses expertly.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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