“It ain’t really safe in Baltimore,” says 13-year-old Pug. “It kind of it is, it kind of is not.” He walks away from the camera, past houses and yards in his neighborhood, along a concrete path, sunlight flaring in the frame just above his head. “Every night you going to be hearing about oh, somebody’s child got shot,” he goes on, or somebody got stabbed or, there’s always something.”
“I like Baltimore,” Pug’s voiceover continues, “because we don’t get no floods, don’t get no hurricanes and none of that.” Instead, his Baltimore gets what you see next, dirt bikes. As the camera in The 12 O’Clock Boys cuts to the street, you see them stunting, flipping onto their rear wheels, riders hands in the air, exultant. And you hear them, 500-watt motors zapping and whirring, the sound familiar and also not. Smiling, Pug watches this scene as he explains further what’s really not safe, say, living in Haiti or in China, where hurricanes and earthquakes destroy buildings and communities. “I don’t like going in another state,” he adds, because I don’t want to be all in that and our house falling or something.” Instead, Pug wants be in Baltimore, to ride a dirt bike, to become part of the crew in his neighborhood, the 12 O’Clock Boys.
Shot over three years, The 12 O’Clock Boys follows Pug as he watches, rides, and works on bikes, and also as his mother, Coco tries to turn him in another direction. “You need to get yourself together and stop worrying about bikes,” she tells him, “You need to get an education. Bikes is not everything.” For Pug, though, bikes are pretty much everything, and the film shows you, again and again, why this might be. The bikes are fast and loud, they’re colorful, the riders are expert, and the community members encourage and support one another enthusiastically. They appear on screen in slow motion, their stunts thrilling, their coordination remarkable, their numbers impressive.
But if all this is a far cry from the shooting and stabbing and buildings falling that worry Pug, the bikers are perceived by some outsiders as troublemakers. Just so, the film opens on a shot of Pug, bumping along in the back of a van that’s carting bikes to a ride spot, as a radio talk show host grouses in voiceover about these “little bastards.” He goes on, “The problem is, and I’ll put it out there, because they’re African American. Nobody wants to say it because no one wants to take action, because you’ve got young black kids, they’re misbehaving. They’re riding on the sidewalks.”
As dangerous as dirt bike riding can be—and Lofty Nathan’s film doesn’t pretend it isn’t—the conclusion this guy reaches is far more alarming, posing its own sort of threat. “I don’t care if they get hurt,” he closes, “Frankly, I don’t care if one of the ‘em dies.” The 12 O’Clock Boys goes on to show how such an extreme, fearful view might be shaped, by repeated inserts of scary local news reports and shots of police helicopters flying overhead. Having determined that it’s dangerous to chase bikers, the city has decided to track them from the air, setting up for arrests and other efforts to shut down rides.
This monitored and labeled, the riders yet pursue their passion, fine-tuning their machines and practicing their tricks. The documentary reveals the appeal for a kid like Pug, a kid his mother loves and his older brother looks after. As Coco puts it, proudly, Pug is “an interesting person, you know. Some of the things you ask him about an animal, he can answer it.” Here you see Pug in a classroom, working with another student on a project. Still, he’s drawn to the bikes. This slender 13-year-old remembers back to “when I was little,” when he saw videos “made by the legends, the founders, the 12 O’Clock Boys,” videos bearing the names of those legends (Superman, Wheelie Wayne, the Wildboyz) and, now uploaded to YouTube, celebrating their skills and the investments of time and energy. Steven, a 12 O’Clock Boy who drives along with the riders, helping them elude police or providing a vehicle for more videotaping, observes that in the city, “You will learn the right ways to do all the wrong shit, you’ll have a PhD in it.” On the street, just outside your door, you see hustling, shooting, and selling drugs, Steven says. “The first thing you see that you actually want to do is ride a dirt bike, the first thing you see that’s actually positive.”
Vibrant and eloquent, the many scenes of kids riding in The 12 O’Clock Boys make clear just how positive. The riders look free and eager, proud and accomplished. As Pug watches and slowly, has a chance to assist riders and ride himself, his mentors like his style. “Don’t matter your size,” one says, “It matter your skill.” That skill, unlike the place where you live, can be a force for change: you can use it to forge friendships, to make a name for yourself, to focus your energies, even when everyone around you says you can’t. Pug finds what he can do, and as you see here, it’s positive, it’s inspiring, it’s beautiful.