The Boys of Baraka


I don't go to the movies all that often, but last weekend I went to see The Boys of Baraka and found myself deeply moved.

Boys is a documentary focusing on four boys from the ghetto of Baltimore who are sent to a boarding school in Kenya. There is good footage of the Baltimore slum where they're from and the scenery in Kenya where they go.

But what's most affecting are the boys themselves. The filmmakers have done an excellent job of setting them at ease and presenting each as an individual. We can watch them grow as they pass through puberty and watch them learn. The film begins with statistics: 76 percent of black males who enter high school in Baltimore will not graduate. None of these boys has two parents at home; the only father shown is in jail, and one mother is mostly on drugs (the son is being raised by his grandmother).

Their prospects, as the Baraka School recruiter tells them, are grim — an orange jumpsuit in jail, a black suit in a coffin. The school in Kenya, perhaps, will set them on a different path.

• Montrey learns to manage his anger and develops an aptitude for math.

• Devon, the boy preacher, seems to be headed for a congregation.

• Romesh, the youngest, makes the honor roll.

• But Robert, who at the beginning of the film is seen as a preadolescent determined to stay away from drugs, by the end is an adolescent with a stony face. One fears he is not going to make it.

Another heartbreak: On summer vacation after the first year, the boys' parents or grandparents are told that the school will be closed for security reasons. There will be no second year. The boys will have to find their way in Baltimore.

Here are two reviews of the movie from the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun. Other reviews seem pretty scanty.

Here are three articles from 2002, when the school was open, explaining its history: It was started in 1996 by the Abell Foundation of Baltimore:

Here's a Baltimore Sun story from 2005, which gives some information about how the boys have fared since the time covered by the documentary.

And here's an interesting and thoughtful take on the movie from Washington Post editorial writer and columnist Ruth Marcus, who as it happens is a longtime friend of one of the two women who made the documentary. Here are her concluding paragraphs:

In the end, "Boys of Baraka" stands as a rebuke to the comfortable orthodoxies of the left and right. The right wants results but is stingy about committing the money necessary to achieve them. Yes, grants to low-income schools and other funding to support No Child Left Behind grew during the first two years of the Bush presidency. But money has been flat-lined since (funding actually fell from 2005 to 2006) and the latest budget envisions less overall federal spending on elementary and secondary education in 2011 than in 2003.
Yet for all the legitimate complaints from many on the left about the straitjacketed rules and underfunded mandates of No Child Left Behind, for all the heartfelt concern about the threats posed by charter schools and voucher programs, it's impossible to watch this film and think anything other than: whatever it takes to give these children and others like them a chance.
The left's reflexive antipathy toward anything associated with the Bush administration has obscured the importance of holding schools accountable for the children they are failing. At Baraka, teachers discover that Richard is performing at a second-grade level. "He's never been evaluated as far as we know in the States, which is mind-boggling – that some teacher wouldn't notice at some point in time that this kid is not learning anything," says teacher Monica Lemoine.
"When you're sending them to Baltimore city schools, you're sending them to jail," says one Baraka parent. School vouchers make me queasy, but Boys of Baraka forces the question: Who am I to tell parents in this terrible circumstance that the public schools are their only option?
Which brings me back to the Warner screening. What you wouldn't have known from the packed house was how hard the sponsors, the D.C. Environmental Film Festival, had to work to get some of the students there. Most were from charter schools, which snapped up the invitations. But organizers made call after call trying to overcome the bureaucratic inertia of the D.C. school system.
Of the city's 37 traditional middle and high schools, students from only seven came.

It seems to me that the movie jogged Marcus away, but only partially away, from liberal dogma. The right doesn't want to spend money, she complains. But spending on schools has soared, and some central-city school districts spend $10,000 per pupil, with the kind of disastrous results we see here. Pat Moynihan once noted that the correlation between education spending and test scores is lower than the correlation between the distance of a state capital from the Canadian border and the state's test scores. The policy implication: You'd be better off moving your state capital north than you would be by increasing education spending.

Marcus seems to dismiss the teacher-union-inspired complaints about the accountability measures of No Child Left Behind. But school vouchers make her "queasy"? Why? Because they channel money away from the teacher unions and therefore from the Democratic Party? It galls me that liberals, even those like Marcus who genuinely care about these kids, are willing to indulge the teacher unions, even though they are a large part of the problem.

But let's give Marcus the benefit of the doubt. The Boys of Baraka shows us the human cost of having such wretched central-city schools—and how the odds are stacked against kids who grow up fatherless in neighborhoods dominated by the criminal underclass. This is one of our society's most agonizing problems. There are some signs of hope: Welfare dependency and crime have both sharply declined from the high levels of the early 1990s, and so perhaps fewer kids are caught in this situation than used to be the case. But too many still are. I've written recently about the wonderful success of the KIPP schools, which take kids from just such neighborhoods and raise their test scores above grade level.

Boys is currently showing at only a few theaters, in Baltimore, Washington, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Marin County. It's scheduled to open later in the month or in March, primarily in several central cities with large black populations and a couple of university towns. The schedule suggests that the distributors see this film as appealing primarily to left-wing audiences. But it's not left-wing propaganda at all. It's a very human story that Americans of every political stripe should be interested in.