Movie Review: Boys of Baraka

By Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D
Movie Magazine International
In "Boys of Baraka" co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady give us a little perspective about the problems in our most violent ghettos. Seventy-five percent of black male students in Baltimore city schools don't graduate from high school. The film focuses on a handful of middle school aged boys from a squalid inner city Baltimore neighborhood; the boys are chosen to attend an experimental school program, the Baraka School in Kenya, designed to ensure the boys will graduate from high school.

One of the adult heroes of the film is the passionate Baraka recruiter, who doesn't mince words when she tells the potential students that their futures point to one of three options: "an orange jump suit and nice bracelets" prison, "a black suit and a brown box" death, or "a black cap and gown and a diploma."

Twenty students who've probably never been outside of Baltimore, go halfway around the world to the 150-acre ranch with no television or full-time electricity. White American teachers slog through the paces of introducing another way to live. A young teacher is incensed that one of the students, Richard, has never been tested for a learning disability even though he reads on the second-grade level. The film follows the boys month by month at the school for a year until they are sent home for a two-month break.

When placed in an environment of safety and quiet, the boys seem to come alive, and start showing interest in their surroundings. They marvel at lizards outside their dorm rooms, watch zebras and giraffes walking by and adopt a hedgehog as a pet. They get to climb Mt. Kenya to celebration the year's progress. They play soccer. They go to the lively local church, and one of the boys plays drums in the band.

The year is full of challenges, but each of the children begins to flourish. In a heart-rending scene at the end of their first year, the boys talk about their observations of the locals. They notice that the locals "know how to love each other." One boy observes that the locals "talk low but still hear each other."

Then we're jerked back to the reality of life in inner-city Baltimore during the break where buildings are set ablaze regularly, drug deals and murders occur in plain sight, and sirens seem to blare around the clock. In a devastatingly moving scene, the Baraka school officials call the parents for an emergency meeting. Without saying more to give it away, problems arise which change plans, and unpredictably change the course of the film.

The boys' stories seared into my memory. At first the pace seems too deliberate, but the tempo gives the feeling of being in the hellish chaotic ghetto. We see that the parents love their children mightily and desperately want the best for them, just like any other parents. We learn that environment is a potent influence in the children's lives, and that a safe healthy environment can change at-risk kids and give them hope.

Even though I spent my early psychology career working with inner city kids in Chicago and San Francisco, watching this film really stirred me up. It got me thinking about our priorities as a nation, and how education could be the key to so many social problems at home and worldwide. We've heard the grim statistics of inner city ghetto life, and "Boys of Baraka" shines a light on their meaning.

In San Francisco, this is Joan Widdifield.
Air date: 2/8/06
More Information:
Boys of Baraka
Co-directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady