The Boys of Baraka, a fine documentary about a group of inner-city, at-risk boys who travel to Kenya to attend a special school, comes very close to greatness. For over an hour, the film is a sharp and blazing account of how boys with multiple challenges and little hope for their lives fare in a strange and wondrous place. Then, in the last half-hour, the film deflates and not through any fault of directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Events outside the filmmakers' control conspired to redirect the plot, and the story we end up with is not the one we were promised. Such are the risks of documentary.
And of life. Ewing and Grady must have considered abandoning their project, since the plot is ultimately such a letdown, but it's easy to see why they didn't. There is still a story here, if a harsher one than we would want. And that story says a lot about the lives of the Baraka boys. Much as we might wish to save them, and much as we want them to succeed, they are up against such entrenched and corrosive maladies the usual urban-poor cocktail of violence, drugs, crime, absentee fathers, etc. that the chances are slim. In Baltimore, where these boys live, 76 percent of African American boys do not graduate from high school.
The Boys of Baraka opens in Baltimore, at night, where a group of young men play-acts a violent arrest scene against the backdrop of the real thing: sirens, helicopters, clumps of people gathered in the street. Soon, in the light of day, we meet 13-year-old Richard, one of the film's four protagonists. He's a lively boy with an attractive streak of bravado, comparing himself to Frederick Douglass. "My neighborhood is mostly about drugs," he says, wrinkling his nose. He goes on to say that he knows he's smart, but that it's hard to stay smart when he's surrounded by a lot of dumb people. When both he and his younger brother Romesh are accepted into the Baraka School in Kenya, their mother explains how she would have felt if only one had been admitted: "Don't make one a king and make the other a killer."
Devon, a twelve-year-old who has aspired to the ministry ever since he was a toddler, gives us a taste of his charismatic preaching style. (No matter what happens, "You just gots to pray.") Montrey, who can't shut up no matter how many times the teacher tries to silence him, would like to be a "chemologist." Despite eight suspensions from school in the past year alone, Montrey dreams of earning a Ph.D., though he doesn't quite know what one is. ("Ph.D., TLC" he laughs good-naturedly at his ignorance.) Later, we meet Richard again in another setting, visiting his father in jail. Now subdued and serious, Richard explains that he's going to do something with his life "and not end up in a place like this, where I can't see my kids." Ouch.
In September, the boys leave for Kenya, and the scene at the airport is heartbreaking. The mothers cry; the boys cry; the audience cries. But when the plane lands, the film explodes with color and life. Suddenly, we're in a world of endless sky and open plain, where elephants and giraffes thunder through the brush and people wearing brightly patterned fabrics play music in the marketplace. The Baraka School is 20 miles from the nearest town, so the boys are allowed to wander outside, making contact with lizards, frogs, and hedgehogs. Inside, they marvel at their simple dorm rooms. "This is my beautiful, beautiful, beautiful apartment," Richard says. Then, in one of the most moving segments of the film, the boys address their mothers directly, via the camera. "Some of the kids want to go home already," one boy says, head down. And then: "I'm one of them. "
In classes, the boys are held to standards of conduct previously unknown to them, and some struggle. They're given counselors and group discussion sessions and talks from the headmaster and principal, some of which feel paternalistic. Meanwhile, almost the entire staff of the Baraka School appears to be white, which is unfortunate (and if the boys mind, we don't hear about it). But there is so much about the school that seems so good. The staff is deeply invested. The setting is gorgeous and nurturing. The classes are serious, and the boys are given room for personal and artistic expression. Where else can inner-city youth get such comprehensive support?
That, indeed, is the question. It's hard to say more without spoiling the plot, but what is so upsetting about the movie and the reality is that there is no other place. The boys' loving mothers and grandmothers can do only so much in such a hostile environment. "It takes a village to raise a child" is an African proverb, and the Baraka School is an intentional African village that has a demonstrated record of success with boys. Inner-city Baltimore is another story.