Friday, March 24, 2006

The Boys of Baraka

by Brian
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, The Boys of Baraka focuses on three "at risk" seventh grade young men from Baltimore who are accepted as students to a remote boarding school in Kenya. The Baraka School, we are told, annually accepts about 20 boys from inner city neighborhoods and attempts to prepare them for high school. It is plainly apparent that this is an opportunity they would never otherwise have, and the boys' parents are only too happy to give them a chance when the alternatives, put bluntly by a school recruiter, are most likely jail or an early death.

The film introduces one fact at the very beginning that I kept turning over and over in my head, that 76% of African-American males fail to graduate high school. Think about what a complete disaster our public schools must be for that to be true. The only possible explanations for it is that we as a society, consciously or otherwise, must be accepting that those kids can't really do any better. If that belief of inferiority is not the very definition of racism, I don't know what is.

And it's this belief that the film confronts head-on. It may sound like a predictable outline for a film; freed from their oppressive home life, the boys flourish. Meanwhile, of course, because we're dealing with kids, and Kids Say The Darnedest Things, everyone has a good laugh (as in last year's simple-minded Mad Hot Ballroom, which is similarly themed but is put to shame by this film's complexity).

But not so fast. The insight we get from these kids is nothing short of stunning. Most of them are somehow seriously deficient in reading; a counselor wonders how one boy could have gotten as far as seventh grade "without anyone noticing that he's not learning anything." Another boy, after a tantrum, talks about how he struggles with whether he should be listening to the side of him that tells him to be good and the side of him that tells him to be bad. The videos they send home are heartbreaking, because they show us just how hard the boys are struggling to accept real, genuine hope into their lives after their rough upbringing.

And the upshot is that the image of inner-city youth that we're so often shown, that of the gang-banging, drug-dealing thugs, is directly challenged. The film shows us before our very eyes how good kids, with parents (and/or other guardians) that desperately want the best for them, give up hope and are completely written off by our society.

This film was released in 2005, and it's yet another case of a magnificent documentary that is slighted by the Academy. If The Boys of Baraka doesn't challenge the conventions of the documentary form like last year's other major slight, Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, it shares with it a story that is as gripping and urgent as any fictional tale.

Click "Link" to read the full review...


Blogger Nick said...

Two of my best friends are from Kenya, so it would be fun seeing the film with them. From what I've heard it's a fascinating nation. On the other hand, that might just be patriotism talking. I'll check it out, if it comes around here.

3/26/2006 02:11:00 PM  

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