Richard Keyser, a 12-year-old from Baltimore, Md., says his neighborhood revolves around drugs. Explaining his departure to another continent, he says, “It’s what I’m willing to do is get away from here.”
Keyser was one of 20 African-American boys from his city chosen to spend seventh and eighth grade in East Africa. At the Baraka boarding school in Kenya, teachers hope they can give their students the foundation they need to do the improbable: graduate from high school.
Faced with the daunting statistic that 76 percent of black male high school entrants in Baltimore don’t receive a diploma, the film “Boys of Baraka,” which won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Independent Film, depicts the individual cases of four boys.
Following them out of their homes in one of the most violent cities in America, the movie traces their steps into a world of hedgehogs, lizards and regimented academics. There, teachers discover some of the students’ talents that went unnoticed in city schools, and the boys adjust to higher expectations. The instructors strive to give them freedom “to be normal teenage boys” and explore their new, exotic environment. They impose constraints on the aggression that was acceptable and commonplace on the Baltimore streets; their main challenge is to reverse the kids’ “at-risk” labels before they return to the United States.
Video messages from families afflicted by poverty remind the viewer why parents are willing to sacrifice two years with their teenage sons. During the separation, one boy’s mother returns to prison for drug use, while her son, thousands of miles away, realizes he’s gifted at math.
The filmmakers keep “Baraka” simple, chronological and subject-focused, a style that the issues and people in the film are powerful enough to warrant. Giving a few overlooked kids some personal attention is what both the teachers and the movie do best.
“Baraka” moves gracefully between light-hearted moments that highlight the boys’ humor, singularity and emotionally charged images. When a war in Kenya complicates the situation and forces the boys’ education to be cut painfully short, it’s hard not to be disheartened. In tracing the boys’ pursuits after their year at the Baraka school, the film showcases their extraordinary resilience. Many flourish in their American schools, putting to use the skills they take away from Kenya: Honor Roll certificates, a new world perspective and confidence.
But to some, suspension of the school’s operation seems like just another broken promise. A mentor for Keyser – the boy who seemed most eager to escape from his drug-dealing peers – says she would be surprised to see the disillusioned student make it past the 10th grade.
The filmmakers realize their story’s problem spans beyond its 84-minute running time, so they don’t attempt to provide a solution or offer the audience empty reassurances. The multitude of questions that can’t be answered make for an abrupt ending – frustrating, but appropriate. It offers a compelling glimpse into what happens when real potential meets an inescapable lack of opportunity.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Boys of Baraka
Tonight only at the Michigan Theater