Out of Africa
Documentary About Much-Publicized Program That Sent City Students To Kenya Finally Receives Theatrical Release
“I’ve never seen one of these,” a woman exclaims from the stoop of her housing-project home. It’s a passport, and her teenage son Richard is going to Africa. His journey is recounted in The Boys of Baraka, a brilliant and engaging documentary that follows 20 African-American boys from Baltimore on a journey to an experimental school in remote Kenya where, removed from the chaos of their drug-destroyed neighborhoods, it’s hoped they’ll gain the inner peace, discipline, and education necessary to become productive men (“Back from Baraka,” Film Fest Frenzy, May 4, 2005; “From Baltimore to the Bush,” Jan. 15,2003).
The Baltimore that nationwide audiences (and city residents from more privileged neighborhoods) see in this movie is an accurate embarrassment. When not attending their substandard schools (Dunbar Middle, resembling a prison midriot), the boys run unattended through war-zone neighborhoods and act out in morbid role-play. From this intolerable milieu the program chooses 20 boys, four of whom we meet in depth. “I’m a strong man,” Richard says, with all the unblinking maturity he can muster. We scoff at his preadolescent hubris, until he gives his reasons: “I’m a man like—what’s his name? Frederick Douglass.” He wants to join Baraka School to set an example for his younger brother Romesh, who’s also enrolled.
Devon, a precocious orator with ministerial aspirations, entertains his mother with an impromptu sermon full of dramatic gasps and impassioned testifying. But we wonder why Montrey, the fourth boy, was chosen. As the movie starts he’s an undisciplined bundle of gangly impulse, prone to fighting over any imagined slight. Unlike the other three, he doesn’t appear self-aware enough to understand the order he craves. A representative from the school says if the boys can’t adapt, they’ll be sent home, and Montrey seems a likely candidate.
Once the boys get to Kenya, revelations abound. It is hot and electric power is sporadic and, as their unstifled tears attest, they miss their moms. But some discoveries are joyous. “I didn’t know it rained in Africa,” one shouts amid an afternoon deluge. They chase lizards and toads and once even find a hedgehog, the nocturnal animal stumbling groggily across the floor like a drunken pincushion. The thuggery of Baltimore’s mean streets have not yet irrevocably corrupted these children. Rather than hurt the beast, they press flat to the floor, eyes rapt and reverent, to see the tiny creature on its level.
Baraka’s strict curriculum uncovers the gaps in their city school education. The seventh and eighth graders stumble on words such as “severely” and “toppled,” laying bare their second grade-level reading ability. Devon, removed from the support of his pastor and structure of his church, starts acting out and antagonizing teachers and classmates—especially the volatile Montrey, with violent consequence. Teachers hike the troublemakers to a remote spot and make them work together to erect a tent before dusk. It’s Montrey who has the revelation that Devon is making it hard on himself and tries to convince him to do the right thing. In his entreaty he reveals the seeds of his maturity.
Slowly, as the boys’ voices deepen, their successes grow. Their families back home receive word of academic achievements that seemed previously unattainable. But then disaster strikes. The political balance in Kenya has tipped, an administrator explains to a room full of parents, and, with the closing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, the school cannot guarantee the students’ safety and must suspend operations. The anger in the room slowly crescendos. One mother begins calmly asking for ways they can continue to support their children’s academic progress and ends up sobbing in despair. Baraka School has sharpened the reality of their children’s potential, as well as the inevitability of their fate without its intervention. How can you close the school for the children’s safety, one parent rightly points out, when they’re more likely to be killed in Baltimore?
Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have chosen an unobtrusive style, with the trust and fearless cooperation of their subjects apparent in every frame, to make an unforgettable documentary. Edited without political agenda, it nevertheless summons outrage at the destined-to-fail chances laid out for these boys by an ill-equipped city school system. Early on a recruiter tells the students that African-American males have three choices of grown-up attire—orange jumpsuit, burial best, or graduation robe. And you leave the theater overflowing with desperate hope for these boys, breath held and fingers crossed, meditating hard on a cap and gown for each one.