"The Boys of Baraka" gives a poignant human face to an alarming statistic: 76 percent of black male students in Baltimore city schools do not graduate from high school. The documentary, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, tells you why. A toxic poor-neighborhood environment destroys hope and undermines self-esteem.
This setting, from which a group of Baltimore middle-school students are extracted and sent to a school in the African wilderness, is the same nihilistic street culture portrayed on the HBO series "The Wire."
In this experimental program 20 "at risk" 12- and 13-year-old black male students are transported 10,000 miles to the Baraka School in rural Kenya. Founded in 1996 on a 150-acre ranch where there is no television or full-time electricity, it offers academic instruction and strict but gentle discipline in an environment where giraffes and zebras roam. Children who complete the two-year program have a high success rate when applying for entrance at the city's most competitive high schools.
Early in the film, a straight-talking recruiter for the school tells an assembly of prospective students that their futures point to one of three options: an orange jumpsuit and "nice bracelets" (prison), a black suit and a brown box (an early death) or a black cap and gown and a diploma. Asked what would become of her two sons, Richard and Romesh, if one were accepted and the other not, their mother bluntly declares that one would become a king and the other a killer. (Both are accepted.)
"The Boys of Baraka" follows four of the students chosen in 2002, during their first year away from home. In addition to Richard and Romesh, we meet Devon, who is musically inclined and dreams of becoming a preacher, and Montrey, a troublemaker who hopes for a career in science.
As the film follows a month-by-month chronology, the boys visibly flourish. Romesh, who initially tries to run away, stays and makes the honor roll. Montrey learns to control his temper. Richard, who reads at second-grade level when he arrives, composes and recites a poem, "I Will Survive," which describes his new-found optimism. The boys play soccer and climb to the top of nearby Mount Kenya. They meet Africans and marvel at their sense of unity.
The movie seems headed in a predictably inspirational direction until the boys return to Baltimore for their summer vacation and encounter the old stresses and temptations. Then sad news arrives. Because of regional politics and threats to its security, the Kenya school must suspend operation. Both the students and the families are crushed and angry. One father bitterly observes that his son has a better chance of being killed on a Baltimore street corner than in a terrorist attack in Africa. A question is asked but never answered: why can't the program be relocated closer to Baltimore?
As the movie follows the four into the future and they deal with their disappointment and try to make the best of the year they had, the filmmakers seem as frustrated as the subjects. But the movie still manages to come up with a conditional happy ending.
"The Boys of Baraka" is so rich that you wish there were more of it. Instead of detailed examinations of each boy's progress, it has time only to assemble bits and pieces of information as it jumps forward. Almost nothing is said about the school itself, its origins, its financing and its staff.
But the film's message is clear and pointed: If you take the boy out of the poor neighborhood, you stand a good chance of taking the despair and hopelessness of the poor neighborhood out of the boy.
The Boys of Baraka
Opens today in Manhattan.
Produced and directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady; directors of photography, Marco Franzoni and Tony Hardmon; edited by Enat Sidi; music by J. J. McGeehan; released by ThinkFilm. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 84 minutes. This film is not rated.