Story of inner-city boys’ African education inspires

  • By Robert Horton / Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, March 2, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

It’s a long way from the mean streets of inner-city Baltimore to the savannah of East Africa, a distance beyond the reach of most seventh-graders. Or is it?

A new documentary, “The Boys of Baraka,” collapses the distance with a single cut. This touching film looks at a program designed to get young boys out of a dead-end existence and expand their world.

The film tells us that 76 percent of black males in Baltimore fail to graduate from high school. The people behind the Baraka school in Kenya came up with a novel, astonishing effort to change this. Each year since 1996 they have taken 20 to 40 boys from Baltimore, around 12-13 years old, and placed them in a two-year program in Africa. No parents, no televisions, no nearby town.

Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady follow a class of kids during their preparation for the Baraka experience and their African education. The program at school includes close attention from teachers, strict discipline and accelerated academic work. The students chosen are not gifted; some of them were problem cases.

Ewing and Grady focus on four students, who were presumably among the most interesting of the class. Richard has barely a second-grade education, and his father is in prison for shooting his mother. Yet every time he talks, the spark of intelligence comes through clear as a bell. Richard’s younger brother Romesh is chosen, too, after their mother pleads with Baraka officials, “Don’t make one of my sons a king and the other a killer.”

Emotional: A documentary following a class of black kids from Baltimore, who are taken to boarding school in Kenya for a tough, two-year program.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for language

Now showing: Varsity

Devon is a boy preacher with a wonderfully animated style; his mother goes in and out of jail as the film proceeds. Montrey is a discipline problem, and at one point is sent to an isolated “base camp” because of fighting. Yet he develops in a completely unexpected way.

“Boys of Baraka” is about halfway to being a great film about these kids. It falls short, in part because of circumstances beyond the filmmakers’ control, which won’t be revealed here but give the film a kind of surprise ending.

But I also wanted to know more about how the Baraka school worked, about the teachers and administrators, and perhaps of past students. There must be some great stories there.

This film does stand on its own as an emotional experience, however. Even at its most inspirational, it’s always tinged with sadness. When terrorist concerns call the safety of the Baraka school into question, one exasperated parent points out that these boys are likelier to be shot on a Baltimore street corner than in Africa.

That’s not just sad, it’s maddening.

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