Ten minutes into “The Boys of Baraka” (ThinkFilm Productions), a startling fact is displayed in stark white letters against a black screen: “76 percent of black boys in Baltimore do not graduate from high school.” With this statistic, we are thrown into the harsh world of Richard, Romesh, Montrey and Devon, the young subjects of “The Boys of Baraka,” a documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.
The four boys, who live and attend school in the roughest part of Baltimore, have all been accepted to the competitive Baraka School in Baraka, Kenya. Each year, the Baraka School recruits 20 at-risk boys from Baltimore to attend the Baraka School for two years, where they receive intensive instruction with the goal of acceptance to Baltimore’s most competitive high schools upon their return. The open plains and tranquil setting of Baraka allow the boys something they’ve never before had: the chance to learn, unburdened by the everyday stress of life in the Baltimore ghetto. The film follows the boys’ first year in Baraka, which culminates in a triumphant climb to the summit of Mount Kenya, a symbolic marker of how far they’ve journeyed and the challenges they’ve overcome to get there.
With a keen eye for visual narrative, Ewing and Grady show us the importance of a safe and supportive environment in a child’s education. Indeed, the cobalt skies and hazy sunsets of the Kenyan countryside prove to be a hospice for the boys, hardened by years of losing classmates and family members to gang warfare and drug abuse. The transition is not without its challenges; Richard, 13, tests at a second-grade learning level, and Montrey constantly picks fights with his classmates. Yet, by the end of the first year, all 20 Baraka boys are hopeful, optimistic and eager to return for their second year.
Sadly, they never get the chance.
After the first year, the school closes down for security reasons (a civil war has broken out, and the threat of terrorism has escalated). Despite the setback, a year later, we learn that Devon is president of his ninth grade class, and that Montrey is attending one of the most competitive high schools in Baltimore. Richard and Romesh, however, have not fared so well, attending a struggling inner-city school whose guidance counselor said she “would be shocked if Richard graduated from high school.”
Such is the bittersweet-ness we glean from films such as “The Boys of Baraka.” We cheer along Devon and Montrey, but are ultimately left with the nagging grimness of Richard’s prospects; which is, perhaps, what Ewing and Grady are interested in illustrating: In a country that prides itself on equality, we like to tell ourselves that the playing field is level, that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. The vacant despair on Richard’s face makes it hard to forget this moving documentary, and even harder to believe that no child is being left behind.
“The Boys of Baraka” is playing at the Landmark E Street Cinema.