'Boys of Baraka': From the Inner City to Africa

In the superbly crafted documentary
In the superbly crafted documentary "The Boys of Baraka," underprivileged Baltimore middle-schoolers are sent for two years to a boarding school in Kenya. (Thinkfilm)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2006

A documentary about four inner-city boys who escape a life of poverty, violence and educational failure to discover their potential at a boarding school in Kenya -- sounds like spinach, right?

Well, "The Boys of Baraka," which follows a group of Baltimore middle school students as they attend the experimental Baraka School, may be nourishing. But it's also rich, sweet, densely layered and deeply satisfying. A film that might have been a dry exercise in earnest nonfiction filmmaking becomes a soaring, artistically complex testament to survival, character and hope.

Through the deeply affecting stories of its four remarkable main characters, "The Boys of Baraka" takes such slogans as "it takes a village" or "a mind is a terrible thing to waste" beyond bumper stickers, reflecting their sentiments not as truisms but truth. What's more, the film never reverts to easy answers or the dreaded blame game; rather, it lets viewers decide what children are being left behind and why.

"The Boys of Baraka" opens like an episode of the HBO series "The Wire," on the mean streets of Baltimore, where a group of anonymous youngsters fight and get arrested. But what looks like a series of edgy confrontations turns out to be a particularly grim tableau vivant as it is revealed that the boys are only playacting what they clearly see every day of their lives.

Then, in a vivid montage, we enter the Baltimore public school system, where we meet 13-year-old Richard and his younger brother Romesh, and Montrey and Devon, both 12. Smart, feisty and brimming with the bravado and anxiety typical of adolescent boys, these youngsters are what bureaucrats call "at risk," being reared by single mothers or grandparents while their parents are imprisoned or fighting drug addiction; and being largely forgotten by a huge educational bureaucracy.

In just a few brief and eloquent scenes, filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady convey just how hopeless the boys' situation is and how hemmed in they are by circumstances beyond their control; in one particularly poetic shot, the chaos and dysfunction of the city school system are summed up in a pool of spilled milk on a cafeteria bench.

Hope arrives in the form of Mavis Jackson, a representative from the Baraka School, which was founded in rural Kenya in 1996 by educators interested in providing a boarding school experience for male Baltimore middle school students who otherwise may end up dropping out, going to prison or dying young. Richard, Romesh, Montrey and Devon -- each a highly charismatic character in his own right -- are chosen along with 16 other kids to attend Baraka for two years, after which they should be prepared both intellectually and emotionally to enter Baltimore's most competitive high schools.

Things don't necessarily work out as planned, however, and although "The Boys of Baraka" reaches unexpected heights of emotion as the boys discover hidden reserves of vulnerability and resilience in the gorgeous East African countryside, it concludes with a series of painful setbacks.

Throughout this skillfully shot and edited film, Ewing and Grady tell a breathtaking visual story, with images gracefully conveying what reams of statistics could only hint at. Their sharp eye is particularly evident in their unforgettable portraits of their subjects, such as when their camera lingers on Devon while he watches a video Christmas card with increasing discomfort, his friends looking on as he hears that his mother has managed to stay out of jail and off drugs.

"The Boys of Baraka" ends on an ambiguous note; as grim reality threatens to engulf their fragile hold on the future, it's not clear who will make it and who won't. But the bigger mystery is how and why their communities -- their families, their neighborhoods, their city, all of us -- have forsaken these promising young men. "The Boys of Baraka" is a spirited, sad, moving and beautiful film, but more important, it's a galvanizing one that challenges viewers, once they've cried over that spilled milk, to do something more.

The Boys of Baraka (84 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains profanity and adult themes.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company