June 20, 2005
The Boys of Baraka, 2005
On a typical summer night in inner city Baltimore, a children's game of cops and robbers shootout plays against the morbid backdrop - undoubtedly in familiar imitation - of a real-life police arrest of a teenager on a neighborhood street. A single statistic posted on black screen provides a sobering context to the children's "art imitating life", role-playing games: that 76% of all African American males in Baltimore city schools do not graduate from high school. A dedicated middle-school school counselor and program recruiter named Mavis Jackson seeks to remedy this grim statistic by assembling some of the city's greatest "at risk" boys into a school auditorium in order to confront the reality of their situation, explaining that that by the age of 18, as an African American young man in Baltimore, their futures can take on three paths: an orange jumpsuit and a pair of Department of Corrections "bracelets", a black suit and a brown wooden box, or a black cap and gown and a diploma that can also serve to open up opportunities for them. Handing out an information package and application form for a two-year boarding school in Laikipia, Kenya called The Baraka School, Jackson encourages the children to give serious consideration to the educational opportunity, citing that graduation in The Baraka School offers them entry into the city's most competitive schools where most then go on to graduate high school. An introverted, musically inclined (and emotionally closed) boy named Devon who lives with his doting grandmother (and away from his financially unstable, drug-addicted mother) dreams of becoming a preacher. An argumentative boy with a natural aptitude for mathematics named Montrey aspires for a career in science. An academically struggling student named Richard and his thoughtful younger brother Romesh are encouraged by their supportive, strong-willed mother to undertake the journey, realizing that it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to change the direction of their future (Asked what would happen if only one of her sons had been accepted into the program, she immediately answers that one would become a king, the other, a killer). Far from the distraction of their desperate surroundings and impersonal institution of the public school system, the boys begin to academically (and emotionally) thrive in the challenges of their new environment, returning home for summer vacation with a newfound sense of maturity, deliberativeness, and character. However, when heightened terrorist concerns and global politics intervene and threaten the future of The Baraka School program at a critical stage in the boys' development, their learned life lessons are soon put to the test. Following the real-time progress of the Baraka boys throughout their formative years (since their recruitment to the school in 2002), filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady capture the depth of intimacy, conflict, poverty, and desolation experienced, not only by the children, but also by their well-intentioned families and guardians who realize the weight of their children's demoralizing environment but feel powerless and financially unable to easily change their circumstances - a sentiment articulated by a concerned father who debates the issue of safety to a program official after hearing the heightened security warnings for the school by commenting that his son has a greater chance of being killed on his own neighborhood street in Baltimore than he does by becoming a victim of a terrorist attack in Africa. In presenting an equally bittersweet, tragic, and affirming portrait of the boys' bifurcated trajectories since their Baraka School experience, the film presents a haunting and complex portrait of poverty, marginalization, and disenfranchisement that defies socially expedient trivializations of human worth, ability, perseverance, and destiny.
*Screened at AFI Silverdocs 2005. The film will premiere in NYC at the HRWIFF on June 23, 2005.