Just got back from Boys of Baraka. I expected to love it, and I liked a lot of it. I checked my watch the first time my eyes watered up; it was 3:43, just about nine minutes after the film started. I'm not a crier, but my eyes watered up a lot during this movie, and probably at no times more than when it focused on Richard, who was the broken heart of the film. The type of kid who, like Bobby, I would describe as having an "old soul," meaning his place in his frenetic world is one of the thoughtful, reflective, and quiet observer. This kid was the soul of the film for me, and I wish the filmmakers had given him a better sendoff than the fatalistic vision they have for him at the end, which is a woman who sees him once a year saying she would be shocked if he made it to high school and would drop dead if he actually graduated.
This cynical vision for Richard is the last we see for him, and the hope of the future lies with another profiled kid, Montrey. See, this is where I'm jaded, because I have an inside scoop on Montrey. Yes, the kid made it into a great high school, as the film shows, but he failed out after one year. He skipped all the time, and fell into the same behavioral patterns he fell into when he was in middle school. The film focuses its hope on him, closing with a beautifully optimistic vision of him enrolling in this school and saying he's going to do his best. What the filmmakers couldn't have known at the time was that he lasted just a year, and checked out long before that year was up, and seemingly didn't learn anything about how to deal with his problems from his Baraka days.
It could be said that he never would have made it that far without the Baraka school, but that's unknown. What is known is that he's now attending Forrest Park High School, his zone school, a school where 24% of kids were proficient in reading and 6% of geometry students were proficient in 2004. I know this because when we walked out of the film today, Montrey was in the lobby of The Charles, his eyes on teh faces of the audience members as we strolled out. I wasn't sure why he was there; maybe he was just seeing the movie. We talked to him for a while, and he says he wants to go back to that good school he got kicked out of, and that's great. But it's clear that the year in Baraka may have helped him get into a good high school, but it didn't help him stay. Maybe he will make it back. We can certainly hope.
I do not mean to bash the Baraka School. For one thing, none of these kids featured got to stay in the school for the two-year enrollment; it was closed for security concerns after a civil war erupted in the area surrounding Kenya. (The scene in which the news of the school closing is delivered is particularly heartwrenching.) It seems the Baraka School was serving as a liferaft for kids to traverse from their troubled elementary school experiences to a decent high school instead of attempting to go through the city's almost uniformly horrible middle schools (there's only one I would send my kid to if I had any, while there's four I high schools that are decent), but the liferaft was sunk when they were only halfway finished with their trip. Still, the sense of defeat these kids feel when they return was disappointing. The world had opened up for them, they had seen that there is a world beyond Beltimore; why are they so fatalistic when they return? I'm talking about Richard, mostly, the kid that ripped my heart out in the movie.
I've taught three kids from the Baraka school. One I had during my first year of teaching; he was a nice, quiet kid who was a terrible writer and later failed a class for plagiarism. However, the other two kids are two of my all-time favorites. I had them both as freshmen, and they're now Juniors, and they're two kids who always make a point of coming to see me to tell me how they're doing. Both were insightful, polite, and smart kids who have done well at the challenging school I work at. I've seen the program work. It's sad it's not happening anymore.
And so the film turns out to be probably all I could have expected it to be for me: moving, even devastating, and frustrated, even infuriating. And that latter part is on all fronts - infuriated by the system, devastated by the kids, frustrated at the filmmakers. The Baraka School itself is shown to be not a savior, and the filmmakers sort of emphasize that there are no easy solutations, just that this was one that sometimes worked. And then it was ended, prematuredly after just 84 minutes. I find the filmmakers' lack of classroom scenes to be troubling, almost to the point where I wondered what they were hiding. What did these kids learn? Where were the moments when they learned? Were they transformed? The film's ending is so cynical - some of it because I know what happened with Montrey - that the only conclusion I can come up with it that these kids weren't transformed by education. And that's the saddest part of all.
Props for providing something that shines some light on this problem of urban education that the nation will continue to both inflict and suffer from for years and years. Now I wish someone would make a documentary about some of these kids that don't go over to Africa. Why do they have to go to Africa to be deemed worthy of a documentary? These kids go through more than most people could imagine.
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