One thing documentaries do better than narrative films is tell stories that take years to unfold, but it takes a certain amount of courage on the part of the filmmakers, and a hope that they're going to record real change. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady began their documentary project The Boys Of Baraka intending to follow a group of Baltimore inner-city junior high students through a two-year stint at an experimental Kenyan boarding school, The Baraka School. But halfway through the term, and about two-thirds of the way through the movie, something went awry—something either unlucky or lucky, depending on what Ewing and Grady were hoping for.
The question of what the filmmakers were hoping for hangs heavy over this familiar but intermittently gripping portrait of American urban poverty. The filmmakers certainly don't mind unpleasantness. The Boys Of Baraka opens with policeman chasing a black youth through the Baltimore night, and throughout—from the school halls to the African wilderness—the documentary catches its subjects at their most out of control, ignoring authority figures and scrapping with each other. At one point, a counselor diminishes one of the boys' potential by saying, "You may not become mayor of Baltimore, but you can always work on cars." As Ewing and Grady focus on the kids, they reveal their individual capacity to be inspirational leaders and academic whizzes. It's really only in a group setting that the macho posturing and insults get in the way.
Or at least that's what the movie shows. No doubt there's a lot of truth to The Boys Of Baraka's vision of a tumultuous life lived among drug addicts, convicts, and welfare cases. But Ewing and Grady make these kids seem more wild and incomprehensible than is probably fair, going so far as to subtitle them even when their speech isn't that hard to understand. The movie dwells on conflict, leaving little room for gentler scenes like the one where a mother marvels at her boys' passports, or the one where the kids are transfixed by the Kenyan rain. Ewing and Grady practically squander the African material, and The Boys Of Baraka doesn't really come to life until the boys return to Baltimore for what turns out to be a permanent summer vacation, due to political unrest overseas. The parents complain that Baltimore is just as much a war zone as Kenya, and wonder aloud why the organizers can't keep the school going somewhere in Maryland. That's a loaded and relevant question—one this movie doesn't really try to answer.