By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 21, 2007)
In their 2005 documentary, The Boys of Baraka (now available on DVD) co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the under funded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.
The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking.
Many of these African-American youth seem to have sprung straight from Central Casting for HBO’s dramatic series The Wire; they are the corner boys, the habitual troublemakers acting out in cacophonous homerooms, kids with junkie mothers who only get to see their fathers during visiting hours at the jail. In other words, most seem destined to lead the kinds of lives that serve to fuel the stereotype of the inner-city poor.
Something amazing happens, however, when these “at risk” kids find themselves in a completely new environment-a place of light, space and none of the distractions of urban living. As cliché as this sounds, they begin to find themselves, and it is a wondrous transformation to observe.
By the time they embark on a day hike to Mount Kenya to celebrate their one-year anniversary at the school, and you realize that they have at that point literally and figuratively “been to the mountain” and gazed over the limitless landscape of their potential, I guarantee you’ll have a lump in your throat. There is no pat, sugar-coated denouement (that’s life) but one is still left with a sense of hope as some of the boys are inspired to push forward and build on their newfound momentum.