Last week, I went with J.G. and Mike to see The Boys Of Baraka, a documentary that follows four "at-risk" boys from Baltimore city, average age 12, who are enrolled into a boarding school in Kenya that is supposed to give them the education and discipline they can't get in Baltimore public schools, so that they might be given a better chance at going to a good high school and graduating. The City Paper's been covering the Baraka School for years, and I'd been looking forward to seeing this movie since it first screened at festivals last year, and it finally opened at the Charles a couple weeks ago.

The night we went, the movie had already been playing there for a week, but I guess since it was a Friday night, they went all out, with one of the film's 2 directors, Heidi Ewing (who, I have to say, is kind of a babe) speaking before and after the film along with the cinematographer. Two of the four boys the movie centered on, Montrey and Devon, who are now about 16, were also there, taking tickets before the movie, and after the movie answered questions from the audience along with Ewing. So it was kind of cool to see how they're doing now, and hear their own thoughts about their experiences in Africa. One of the classmates of the 4 kids featured in the film who's seen a little bit in the movie is now a local rapper named Ammo who I've met and seen perform a bunch of times, and also plays Spider on the 3rd and upcoming 4th seasons of The Wire, so it was cool to see him in the movie. And in other Wire news, we saw Detective Freamon in the lobby after the movie.

The movie itself is definitely worth seeing, although by no means perfect. At 84 minutes, it felt maybe too short, and sometimes I questioned what the filmmakers chose to focus on. It's decidedly a story about the 4 boys more than about the school, but I would've appreciated a little more background about how the school was started and how their teaching methods differ from that of U.S. public schools. Although it will definitely make more of an impact as a feature film, I almost wish they had gone the route of a mini-series or some other format that would allow them to show more footage and explore the topic at greater length. Maybe an eventual DVD release will offer more information, I hope. And sometimes the dramatic ambient music was a bit much, but for the most part, the storytelling was handled well and with a light touch, and allowed its subjects to define themselves. Although there are some incredibly sad and infuriating moments, there's also a lot of footage of kids just being kids, excited to be in Africa around lizards and hedgehogs.

Nonetheless, it's an interesting look at an experimental alternative to public schools that is unfortunately no longer available, as the Baraka School closed down a year into the shooting of the film due to political turmoil in Kenya. But the film will hopefully shed some light on what is happening in Baltimore and in cities like it all over the country, where young kids that are as full of potential as anyone are being statistically presumed to end up dead or in jail if they aren't given a fair shot at graduating high school. One of the most promising things that the director mentioned after the film is that current Baltimore mayor and possible soon-to-be Maryland governor Martin O'Malley's wife saw and loved the film and made him see it, and it's led to him discussing options for opening a boarding school like Baraka here in Maryland.

It is worth noting, though, that while the film closes with Montrey getting great test scores and getting into one of the best schools in the city and generally being the beacon of hope at the end of the movie, the truth is apparently a little different. I came across a blog post by a Baltimore city school teacher who had a little inside track on the situation, and reports that Montrey failed out of the school he got into after a year, and is now at a decidedly less prestigious public school (although he also has very positive things to say about some of the kids he's taught who went to Baraka). Of course, there's no way for the filmmakers to have really known that when they finished filming, but I noticed that noone mentioned anything about that or clarified his situation when speaking after the screening. I was tempted to stand up and ask a question about that or something else, but I do respect what the boys and the filmmakers have accomplished and didn't want to come off rudely. They said at the end of night that the movie is going to keep playing at the Charles as long as people keep coming to see it. So I hope it gets a long run and people from all over the city get a chance to see it and the movie isn't limited to the Charles' usual art house crowd and reaches the kind of people it's really about, so if you get a chance, definitely go out and see it.

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1st. Off I believe in anything positive to help the kids out, kudos to the program and the influence they had on the youth.

Couldn't the program have been done in maybe Essex? Jessup? Deep Creek? Glen Burnie? What purpose did Kenya actually serve?

My biggest beef:

You take 20 black males to Africa for schooling and not have one single black male teacher???

People been yelling from the rooftops for years that the one thing every single black male needs is a positive black male influence. Schools were knocking down my doors in college to come and teach in the inner cities, yet when they start a program for black males there are no black male teachers? it really doesn't make any sense to me at all.
First off, I totally agree - why not do this program in some rustic part of Western Maryland? Pennsylvania? I can see some benefit from going to Africa, but certainly not at the cost and risk, and the school surely could have been relocated once the Baraka Kenyan School closed.

However, fyi, there were black teachers at the school, but there just weren't any shown in the film. In fact, I believe only one teacher is shown in the film - the foreign language teacher, in the lone classroom scene - and the rest are counselors (and really only one is featured with any prominence).

I've asked kids in the school and there were black teachers there, but they were native Kenyans for the most part. If you check out some of the archived articles on the baraka school in City Paper, one of them is interviewed. As someone who has been on several hiring committees, it's pretty tough to find African American teachers, and I'm guessing it's even tougher to find someone - any race - to go over to Africa to work for $4-$5,000 a year.
I wrote an e-mail to someone about this, so I guess I'll re-post this with some modifications.

I thought it was disappointing. It was very short, and I thought there was a lot left to be told.

What happened to all the kids afterwards? (Like, Montrey got into City College but I have it on good information that he failed out after a year.) Why was all potential bad news avoided?

What insights did they gain from seeing the difference between Kenya and Baltimore? What were some of the similarities? (Although Montrey did say after the movie that the one major thing he learned was that people are the same wherever you go.) Did they know anything about the violence in Kenya that caused the school to shut down? What parallels can be drawn between that and Baltimore?

Most of all, I felt that the program failed those kids. They promised them something and didn't deliver, whether it was their "fault" or not.

The girl I watched with is a Baltimore City school teacher, and that was the first thing she noticed: "Those kids get disappointed ALL THE TIME by adults." I thought that was a really salient point. Because when you get right down to it, the program was about leadership; specifically, providing adult leadership and direct supervision that those kids generally don't get in Baltimore for various reasons. And even THAT got fucked up.

If I were in their position, I'd probably be thinking, "Damn, even these white people who were supposed to teach me can't even get their shit together!" It must make them so discouraged. It was discouraging to watch, at least.

So to recap, I felt that it left a lot of cold realities unspoken, and a lot of really good ideas left on the table. It was almost like they got tired of making the movie after 80 minutes and just said, "Eh. This is good enough."

Some comments on other respondents on this thread:

I think the setting of Africa was supposed to provide some sort of Afrocentric perspective for these kids (ie., "get in touch with your roots"), and I'm not sure that that goal was accomplished. As I wrote above, Montrey's said that Africa only proved to him that people are the same everywhere (which reminded me a lot of Richard Pryor's riffs about Africa: "They fuck up your luggage just like in New York!").

At the very least, they should have been able to do the second year at a similarly rural location in Maryland. Again, I think the system really failed those kids, which is really discouraging.

Agreed about the lack of black male teachers. Although it did seem that the white teachers did a good job of getting through to the kids, "Tif" is absolutely right that what those kids need is good black role models. But also, the movie didn't show (or purport to show) the whole experience. Which was a beef I kind of had with the movie.

One more thing: I think that the change of scenery was a crucial part of the experience. I think more of Baltimore City's education dollars should be spent on programs like this. Every kid needs a place to mature and develop a sense of self, and in many cases the poisonous atmosphere of The Corner is what really gets these kids in trouble. They're not stupid, they're not bad kids; they're just KIDS. Everyone's impressionable in 7th and 8th grade, so I think it's better to get those kids away from the familiar for a while, and hopefully bring back some wisdom and life lessons back to Baltimore.

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