Charm Shitty

Washington City Paper | February 10, 2006
Black Baltimore teens, by the time they’re 18, will have made a fashion choice: They’ll be wearing an orange jumpsuit with bracelets. Or a brown suit with a brown box. Or a gown, which comes with the nicer accessory of a high-school diploma. At least that’s what the recruiter for a two-year educational program in Africa says to potential students in The Boys of Baraka, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary about at-risk youth.

According to the film, 76 percent of Baltimore’s black males don’t graduate from high school. In 1996, the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, a group dedicated to aiding Maryland’s disenfranchised, founded the Baraka School, which selects 20 or so seventh- and eighth-graders with the bleakest futures to study in rural Kenya without the distractions of drugs, violence, and broken homes. The Boys of Baraka focuses on four of these students—Devon, Montrey, and brothers Richard and Romesh—as they say a temporary goodbye to inner-city life, marvel over their first passports, and then discover that their free trip doesn’t mean a free ride: “This school is very strict...God!” Richard says. Regular exercise, too, is part of the curriculum.

Ewing and Grady interlace footage of the kids’ home life, both before they leave and while they’re away, with their experiences in Kenya. Most of the boys have a startlingly positive attitude about their circumstances. Montrey is shown visiting his father in jail, telling him, “I’m going there so when I grow up, I’m going to be somebody.” Devon is taken care of by his grandmother because his mom is an addict and often in prison, yet he says he accepts that “life will never be fair” and aspires to be a preacher. Richard insists that he’s too smart and too strong to let “them”—the addicts all over his neighborhood—“get in here,” as he points to his head.

In undistinguished reality-TV style, Ewing and Grady present the school as a cure-all—though the FDA would probably insist on a few asterisks. The students’ grades go up, but excepting a couple of in-class scenes, the mechanics of their academic progress is a mystery. The background of the teachers and administrators—who are almost exclusively white Americans—isn’t revealed. Nor, for that matter, are the school’s origins or funding. Instead, the film shows the boys checking out hedgehogs and lizards. Or playing soccer. Or being rewarded with a trip up Mount Kenya to celebrate the completion of their first year. They sure seem happy!

Regardless of how heartening the attitudes of the chosen students and the program itself seem to be, the directors never rise above condescension. Subtitles are frequently used when the kids are interviewed—and not because they’re talking quietly. And when the boys return home for a two-month summer vacation, an unimaginable disaster strikes: The school is shut down because of political unrest. Ewing and Grady present this as tantamount to a death sentence. Forget about how the kids have been affected by that first year. Forget about their bottomless wells of self-resolve. Without the nice white folks who’ve magically brought them this far, the boys are as good as doomed.

Naturally, the filmmakers stick the camera in the kids’ faces as they brood over the situation. As Richard and Romesh hang out at a burned playground, Romesh, the younger brother, insists that one year isn’t enough to help them and wonders why such a program can’t be set up in Baltimore. With his head hanging low, Romesh then declares what The Boys of Baraka has been desperate to prove all along: “I think all our lives are gonna be bad now.”

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