The Best Intentions
"I'm strong--strong like Frederick Douglass," says 12-year-old Richard early in The Boys of Baraka. His boast, of course, is more wish than description. Like the other young subjects of this documentary (opening November 30 at New York's Film Forum), Richard came before the camera as a hard-pressed kid from Baltimore's crumbling, chaotic public schools. People said he was "at risk"--a phrase that, for one boy in the film, meant he'd been suspended eight times in the past year, and for another that he had a junkie mother and a mean streak. For Richard it meant that he was reading at second-grade level, and that his father was doing thirteen and a half years in prison.
The solution that was proposed and then recorded in fascinating, ultimately devastating, detail by filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady was for Richard to develop his hoped-for strength in the Kenya bush as a student at the privately run Baraka School. Each year, a Baltimore foundation recruited twenty boys for this program, which took them from a neighborhood that was "all about drugs" (as Richard said) and transported them to a place of natural beauty near a village where black people lived in dignity and peace. Some of the boys didn't like it at first: Schoolwork was demanding, discipline strict and television nonexistent. And though the families back home were fractured, the boys still missed them. By the end of the first year, though, these students had gained new mastery of themselves (as symbolized by a hike up Mount Kenya) and were looking forward to the next term, which was supposed to leave them ready for high school.
Up to this point, The Boys of Baraka keeps threatening to become a motivational film, or (worse still) a promotion piece for this private initiative. But Ewing and Grady are marathon-runner documentarians--the type who are committed to living with their subjects for months and years, and to discovering the film's content and shape along the way. Through perseverance and honesty, they recorded a terrible reversal in the expected story, then went on to show how the boys coped with it. Some did unexpectedly well; and some, for all their wishful boasting, did not. Either way, you ache for these kids, who'd already had enough disappointment for a lifetime.