Review: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's 'The Boys of Baraka'

From 2005, here is one of the first documentary reviews by Christopher Campbell, covering one of the first documentaries by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

The Boys of Baraka

This review of The Boys of Baraka was originally published on the movie blog Cinematical on November 29, 2005.

Having seen The Boys of Baraka, Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley now hopes to create a domestic version of the documentary film’s featured program, in which a group of the city’s at-risk students is transported to a boarding school in Kenya. It would appear that the incomparable power of nonfiction cinema to alert and influence has struck again.

Unfortunately, O’Malley’s proposal has so far been met with suspicious disapproval, according to an August 31st article in the New York Times. Many people seem to be wary of a free, government-run facility for the housing, educating, and reforming of troubled inner-city youth, seeing the plan as hardly distinguishable from precautionary juvenile detention. The attitude and assumption are not unreasonable, though it is likely uninformed, and if these critics manage to see the film, it might give them a better understanding of their mayor’s intentions.

Might is the keyword, though, because the influential power of documentaries doesn’t necessarily extend to movies with a dramatic, human angle as opposed to ones centered more on informative exposition. Despite its depiction of The Baraka School as a foundation unlike the preventive lockdown being imagined, this film isn’t quite a grand tour of the institution or its process. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady may have originally been more concerned with promoting the school, but their resulting focus is specific to the participation of four of its students and their responses to the opportunity.

Shown first is the hopelessness of their existence in Baltimore, a city infamous for its poverty and illiteracy, where, the movie claims, seventy percent of African-American boys don’t graduate from high school. Montrey, a class-clown, is viewed as a distraction and a lost cause. Devon, who aspires to be a preacher and even practices his sermons publicly, appears too distraught by his mother’s drug abuse to concentrate. Richard and his younger brother Romesh can see crack deals from their bedroom window but aren’t likely to produce the kind of grades that will grant them an escape from the neighborhood. Each boy introduces himself boastfully as being physically strong and proud, but they are all innocent and scared little kids who are wise enough to dream of an exit, but maybe not smart enough to realize one.

Lucky for them, someone designed the doorway. In all, twenty twelve and thirteen-year-olds are chosen annually to live and study at the East-African school for two years, completely free, where they will be better attended to, as the classes are smaller than they are used to and the administration is more individually involved. You might wonder, knowing this, how the filmmakers could dare isolate four of them and turn them into movie stars. And did The Baraka School approve of this separation during production?

Alas, we cannot tell much from the doc about the approach taken by the school on any debatable issues. We can only accept that on all accounts the program is a good thing. We’re shown a few of their unique educational experiences, such as their learning the native language, but mostly we are given information about their academic improvements by way of interviews with their family members. We also get to see an elaborate punishment for two quarreling boys as they are forced to camp out together, yet after showing the silent construction of their tent, the film moves on without revealing an aftermath. Still, throughout the first year, the boys apparently grow and mature, no longer homesick or awkward or violent or slack.

I don’t want to spoil the outcome for the boys or tell of any achievements they might make, although many of their developments are only found out through supplemental reading (see the NY Times article). Based on O’Malley’s reaction, and the usual course taken with these human-interest docs, you can assume that everyone comes out well in the end. Your assumption wouldn’t be wrong, but in the end, the film gets surprisingly bleak, looking to rouse rather than inspire.

The influence of the doc on O’Malley, and any detractor that it may convert, is not to be ignored or put down, but we shouldn’t give the film too much credit for activating change. In doing so, we encourage the acceptance of cinema’s displacement of more adequately extensive channels for the debating of social issues. Meanwhile, for viewers without official power or without more than a passive interest in fighting such injustice, The Boys of Baraka becomes a betrayal, as it concludes with an exploitive feel. More importantly, it lets down the four boys documented, not to mention the other sixteen in the program.

Understand: there is a chance to confuse the worth of the school with the worth of the film. Often with documentaries like this one, I feel that all its acclaim and awards are meant more for the cause than for the artistic or journalistic achievements of presenting the cause. So when I say that the boys are let down by the film, it is regardless of the triumphs they’ve achieved thanks to the program. Likely, though, they are delighted enough with being seen and paid attention to. The expectations of the medium hopefully will never be a concern for them.

So, it becomes a concern for you and me. I happened to have seen Steve James’ Hoop Dreams just days before, so my expectations were high, although not unfair. The Boys of Baraka has many similarities with that monumental documentary from 1994. It too traces multiple years in the lives of young, African-American boys as they are given an opportunity for better education and environment, depicting the contrast between the grim and the sunny possibilities that lie ahead for them. The difference is that Hoop Dreams is more than twice as long and follows only two kids. How Ewing and Grady could only deliver eighty-four minutes from the six-hundred hours (or three-hundred, depending on what you read) of digital video accumulated over the two to three years is a question I’m not even sure I want to be answered. All I know is that the length is shockingly deficient.

What is lost in the lack of coverage is proper investment in the boys. When you watch Hoop Dreams you become so intimate with William and Arthur that their journey feels like your own. The Boys of Baraka might give you only a fraction of an acquaintance with Montrey and the others. It isn’t that you won’t care about the four boys; you just won’t get to know them enough to care too long after the credits roll. Well, you won’t unless you’re a public leader in Baltimore, anyway.

For Martin O’Malley the four boys are just part of the twenty boys who are in turn just representatives of the needs of his city. For an official like him, The Boys of Baraka can not be appreciated merely as a journey of specific individuals, as Hoop Dreams can. Nobody watches James’ doc and thinks it’s about the private school or about the importance of basketball as an exit strategy for underprivileged youth. Everyone is aware that its about the kids. But because Ewing and Grady don’t display the same devotion to the boys in their film, they acquire more emotional reactions to The Boys of Baraka‘s settings and topics than to its characters.

Ewing and Grady could have done much worse. It can be discovered outside of viewing The Boys of Baraka that the directors became rather subjective, helping some of the kids to get jobs on the HBO series The Wire. Thankfully they were never self-serving enough to put their own good deeds into their film, as was Zana Brinski, the vainglorious co-director of the erroneously acclaimed, Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels (That The Boys of Baraka is currently on the Oscar shortlist for next year’s awards is, therefore, a lesser concern of mine). Besides, regardless of its impetus, the city of Baltimore could see some progressive action as a result of the film. That is if O’Malley can get the film to be shown in his city, a place not known for art-house theatres.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.