Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 19, 2005 9:42 pm 
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The joys and sorrows of a plan to save ghetto youths

Good documentary filmmakers stick to their subjects when things turn out differently. The essence of documentary “reality” is that it’s unpredictable and complicated. Documentarians follow their subjects wherever they go, and report truthfully.

The Boys of Baraka has some of the weaknesses – and the strengths – of Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's 2004 Born into Brothels, the recent documentary about Calcutta children that is also about an experiment to salvage the lives of severely disadvantaged kids. Again, vivid and articulate kids are involved and the film belongs to them. Baraka brims over with charm and humor and will probably bring some tears. It’s one of the best recent depictions of African American life on film. As with Born into Brothels, lots of questions aren’t answered for the audience.

We don’t know, for instance, how the Baraka School in Kenya got started or who the people are who run it. For seven years, we learn, it has recruited and handpicked twenty Baltimore ghetto boys to travel to Africa and spend two years learning the three R’s becoming academically motivated, finding out how to pull together, to stop acting out the pain of their violent Baltimore neighborhoods and broken families – a world depicted in Charles S. Dutton's graphic HBO mini-series The Corner, shot on location in Baltimore’s mean little streets.

The film focuses only on a handful of the boys. It’s great, though, at following their relationships with their families by phone and video. When a phone call happens, you get to see the people at both ends, Baltimore and Kenya. It’s great on the interactions in the families, the hopes and fears. Once the boys get to Kenya, the film shows staff conflict resolution processes. Romesh, the younger of two brothers in the school, is so unhappy he packs up and drags his gear outside ready to go – but he realizes he’s out in the middle of nowhere and no airport van is coming. In Kenya the boys, excited, scared, lost, or still angry, are suddenly also free for once just to be boys, to wonder at clouds and play with lizards. We glimpse some of their classes. We see that some of the disciplinary problems go on, but they’re individually, carefully, and gently dealt with, every time. Some of the boys learn to their surprise that they’re smart. A boy of 12 who tests at the second grade reading level writes a poem about himself and reads it to the group.

After rough starts by year’s end there’s been dramatic progress. Most of all the boys have come to see Baraka as their future and motivation and hope. Despite bouts of loneliness and homesickness they live to say this is a wonderful place. All the more tragic, then, when politics forces the school to close down so that after a two-month “vacation” (more like a refresher course in why they wanted to leave) they learn their idyll is over and they’re back in the lousy local public school system. Why can’t the school set up a program to continue with them in Baltimore? No answer is given.

Ewing and Grady stay with the boys long enough after that to show several of them who do well (Devon is a class president and a budding sanctified preacher; Montrey, a disciplinary nightmare before, is outstanding in math and gets into the best public high school in Baltimore City) and some who seem headed for that orange suit or brown box the Baraka recruiter warned of in the film’s first few minutes as two out of their three options in life (the other’s a cap and gown).

This is the cautious message of The Boys of Baraka (not unlike that of Born into Brothels): when special measures are taken, there’s hope for poor kids from the worst urban environments to become something. But it only happens sometimes, and it isn’t easy. Though we learn at the outset that 76% of Baltimore black males do not graduate from high school today, we don’t learn in detail what happens to this group who go to Baraka – only that a majority of their predecessors did well academically afterward. Exactly how many did the Baraka School redirect to academic success this time, and in its earlier period when their students got to stay the whole two years?

We don't know the answer to that one, but this movie – through its African American youths and their families – is amazingly touching, articulate and funny. One may walk out sad, but one can't walk out hopeless. And the filmmakers may have left some gaps, but they have nonetheless provided us with a moving and vivid story.

[Theatrical premiere at Film Forum, New York, December 2005.]

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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