In The Boys of Baraka, I suppose there's a lot to be forlorn about: the unrelenting violence, the drug-addicted and absent parents, the lousy school, the decrepit housing. But the thing about it is, you come away from this film smiling. You come away cheering. There's one pretty incredible victory in this film, and given all that you've seen and heard, one triumph feels like enough. But should it be?
As I watched The Boys of Baraka I thought a lot about the kids I got to know while working on my book, There Are No Children Here. They postured and posed. They spoke of the violence in their community without affect, without emotion. They seemed hardened and distant. But as I got to know them, it became clear that much of it was their own manner of self-protection from the harsh realities around them. For a long time I believed that given the pressures — either within the home or on the streets — for so many of these children, the answer was to pull them out their environment, partly to show them something different, but equally importantly to give them an emotional break from the tumult around them. Watching "The Boys of Baraka" reinforced that belief while also pointedly underscoring the paradox which I've long struggled with: being away from troubled family members can cause other anxieties, not the least of which is a sense of helplessness, of being unable to assist a brother or sister or parent in need. (I so felt for Devon when he called home, and asked his grandmother where his mom was; his grandmother lied, and told him she still hadn't come home when in fact she was back in jail. From Devon's face, I believe he knew.) It can also create a sense of guilt. Why me?
The strength and the beauty of The Boys of Baraka is in its absolute loyalty to these boys' stories, to the unexpected twists and turns that confront them. I did wonder, though, why the school chose to establish itself in Kenya. It didn't seem that the boys had much contact with Kenyans or with the Kenyans' way of life. They could just as easily been in the hills of New England or in the mountains of Colorado. And while I found myself in awe of Montrey's transformation — he not only survives but in the end blossoms — there are the two brothers, Richard and Romesh, who come out of the experience, it seems, unaffected. I've seen that before. Years ago, I had helped a teenage boy from Chicago's West Side get into boarding school. For a year he thrived, but then as the travails of his family pulled on him (he later told me he felt like he'd abandoned them) he buckled. He'd call me constantly, asking me to check in on them. To bail a brother out of jail. To help his mother out with the rent. To buy school clothes for a younger sister. In the end, being disconnected got to be too much for him. He sabotaged himself, and managed to get himself expelled. This experience, as well as The Boys of Baraka, suggests to me that we can't rely solely on programs which take kids away from their families and their neighborhoods if we're unwilling to do anything to reinforce and rebuild those same families and neighborhoods. That was certainly brought home in this film when the boys are home for summer vacation and then learn that the school has to close because of security concerns. Some filmmakers might have jumped ship, but not Ewing and Grady. They kept right on filming, and we should be forever grateful. What they ended up with is a much more complicated, rich and edifying story. This is one important film. Riveting and daringly honest.
Alex Kotlowitz is the author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America and several other books. His articles have also appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and The New Republic. He lives in Chicago.