The Boys of Baraka took over three years to make, and the experience had a profound effect on us as filmmakers in addition to impacting our views of American society.
We had both made films about the disenfranchised: people living on the margins of society. But the kids we met in Baltimore — and became very close to over the years — were impoverished on a level we hadn’t seen so intimately before.
Baltimore is a typical “rust belt” city, filled with seemingly endless blocks of ghettos, boarded-up homes and discarded human beings. Some families are made up of fifth and sixth generations of abject poverty — and the result is extremely destructive, wasteful and ugly. When you grow to love someone who is personally suffering because of the family they were born into, you feel how truly unjust it really is.
The deeper understanding we gleaned about poverty was directly linked to our absolute shock at what the public education system fails to offer inner-city youth. They are taught from their first “institution” (i.e., the school system) what their roles are in American society. In a place where an African-American boy who graduates from high school is considered miraculous, ambition and dreams are squashed early on. These children are taught that they are born losers, are instructed to aim as low as possible. The school system seems to be simply a reflection of what society has in store for them.
Yet, once removed from this grim environment, the students seemed to flourish, to become the powerful young men they knew existed inside of them. It was incredible how quickly bad attitudes and tough exteriors dissipated in an atmosphere of positive reinforcement and encouragement. The boys learned to be competitive with their grades, to strive to please their teachers and themselves. They were hungry for knowledge and actively looking forward to their futures. They allowed themselves to fantasize about careers as chemists, teachers and architects, instead of a life on the corner or on the stoop.
As documentary subjects, the boys illustrated grace and dignity. They confided their hopes and fears with complete openness and brutal honesty. They were funny, curious and tender. Although they came from a bleak and seemingly hopeless world, their humanity shone through.
The experience of meeting these kids and making this film taught us to be more human and less judgmental. The boys would be shocked to know that they taught us so much, and we’re eternally grateful to them for that. We hope they will touch audiences in the same profound way they touched us.
— Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Filmmakers