"The City That Reads" is how Baltimore advertised itself during my college years, an ironic proclamation considering the city's decrepit public school system and skyrocketing dropout rates. As Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's The Boys of Baraka proves, such willful ignorance (or laughably wishful thinking) regarding its educational infrastructure still exists in Maryland's metropolis, a place where poverty, broken homes, and oversized, impersonal schools frequently combine to drive kids toward the criminal life. Beginning with an image of young boys in the projects playing cops and robbers that's eloquently juxtaposed with a real-life police drug bust, Ewing and Grady's documentary tracks the paths taken by four (out of 20) "at-risk" middle-schoolers as they're given an opportunity to escape their inner-city neighborhoods (where 76% of all African-American males fail to graduate high school) and spend two years studying at the Baraka School in Kenya, East Africa.
The boys hail from families beset by absentee parents (such as brothers Richard and Romesh's incarcerated father, serving time for shooting their mother in the leg) and/or substance abuse (aspiring preacher Devon's immature, relapsing mom), and thus the Baraka School's strict, regimented focus on studying and polite behavior becomes a reprogramming effort aimed at providing the boys with a more constructive outlook on the future. Free from their corrosive U.S. environments, each of the boys—including perpetual fighter and troublemaker Montrey—soon thrive both academically and socially out in the African wilderness, gaining confidence and self-worth.
A portrait of the nature-versus-nurture debate in which external factors are depicted as weighing heavily on children's fates, Ewing and Grady's film vividly captures the disenfranchisement and emotional and intellectual inhibition fostered by poverty in both kids and parental adults, the latter of whom are angrily distraught when informed that, due to violent regional conflicts, the Baraka school will be closed down and the boys, after one year in the program, will be forced to reenter Baltimore's public schools. Culminating with its subjects heading in expectations-defying tragic and hopeful directions, The Boys of Baraka illustrates the unpredictability of youthful development as well as the frustration, despair, and yearning of children for whom prison and pine boxes are as likely adult destinations as college. Describing how Africans differ from Baltimore's African-Americans, Montrey tells his teacher that "they act like they unified," an encapsulation of the Baraka boys' desperate desire for cohesion not only in the home and the community but also—as confirmed by Devon's discussion about his constant internal struggle with good and bad impulses—within themselves.