Documentaries about kids can be sentimental and cute. Or they can treat their subjects with respect, as the complex, erratic, ambitious, thoughtful beings they are. In The Boys of Baraka, the titular subjects are four (of 20) Baltimore at-risk students selected to attend the Baraka School in Kenya. The film displays some of this extraordinary experience without making any of it cheap or simplistic.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s recording strategy is observational, with occasional interviews, as well as a scattering of the kids’ videos home, taped in Kenya. (These are engaging and sometimes awkward self-descriptions and admissions of loneliness, excitement, and worry.) Introduced in Baltimore, their futures look bleak at best (the film types out a statistic that 76% of African American boys in the city don’t graduate from high school). the boys in focus here — angry Montrey (12, who’s “been suspended, like, eight times,” and has aspirations of becoming a scientist, a “chemologist”), aspiring preacher Devon (14), and brothers Richard (13) and Romesh (12) — don’t necessarily trust that the eager white teachers who will take them to Africa mean as well as they seem to, but they’re excited by the chance they imagine the journey to be, a chance to see a new place, meet new people, and most of all, get away from Baltimore.
“My neighborhood is mostly about drugs,” says Richard. “I know I’m smart… I’m a strong man like, what’s his name? Frederick Douglass.” Richard’s self-performance for the camera is touching and provocative. He knows where and who he is and imagines, at this point, that he can beat his circumstances, including a father in prison, whom he visits briefly, and sadly, before he leaves for Kenya. When Richard observes, “I don’t wanna be in a place like this, where I can’t see my children,” his dad can only smile, faintly, and say, “I’ll be rooting for you.” Similarly, Devon’s mother Lisa is a cocaine addict, and when she notes his strength, in turning to prayer and big-suited preaching at a local church to maintain some sort of order, she also asserts that he’ll never use drugs “because he learned from watching me.”
Unfortunately, kids often do repeat their parents’ mistakes, no matter what anyone wants for them. And yet, the Baraka School folks hope the odds might be beaten if the boys observe other behaviors and find other models. And so they take them away. At Baraka, the teachers and counselors are dedicated to the kids’ welfare and indeed, manage a remarkably high success rate with their students. Still, the journey is hard, as the boys have so much to unlearn and relearn once removed from their difficult environments. The school is located 20 miles from the nearest town, and while the openness and lack of distraction (no guns, no drugs, no iPods) allow “these boys to be boys,” the film also shows how patterns of behavior and culturally shaped attitudes are hard to shake.
They check out zebras, thorny plants, and their new, “beautiful apartments,” essentially dorm rooms. While they are occasionally free to explore and play football (soccer) with one another, they also live according to new structures: classes and teamwork, sharing and performing. They write and read poetry, take math courses, do calisthenics. And they sometimes lapse into old behaviors, picking fights or taking challenges (“I’m gonna fuck you up,” Trey tells another boy). Instructed that they don’t need to “escalate the situation,” they get it but don’t: this is how boys act, this is how they establish respect and survive. And if they don’t, what do they have? One “punishment” has Trey and another boy, Derek, dropped off at a camping area in the mountains (near a base camp where counselors stay), where they are informed they will need to erect their own tent and get through the night — together. Sullen and frustrated, the boys resist and then give in. Wild animals make noises at night, after all. When they can work together, Montrey tells a teacher, “they act like they unified.”
Reframing such expectations and seeming needs is the primary purpose of Baraka. While the movie does overuse its “African” drum tracks. For the most part, it maintains enough of a distance from the boys to let their stories unfold without much commentary, implicit or explicit. The narrative arc does allow that the boys make “progress,” and are of two minds about their Christmas-time trip back to Baltimore. Happy to see family but not sure whether they want to reenter the world they’ve worked so hard to get beyond. As Trey says, “My mother said she’d be so hurt if I turned around and be like my father.”
And then they learn devastating news concerning the future of the program, in a twist that shows again — as if you needed reminding — that the boys’ greatest obstacles are institutional and political. If their increased capacity to work through interpersonal conflicts teaches them anything, it’s that they can rely on peers. Flummoxed, disappointed, and in some cases, confirmed in their suspicion that adults will always let them down, the kids are again feeling on their own. As Devon says, “Life isn’t fair, it’ll never be fair.” The boys can’t help but learn this lesson.