The Boys of Baraka opens with a montage of inner city nihilism—a policeman chases a man through the streets; a drug deal goes down in broad daylight; two men fight on a street corner. It's Baltimore, Maryland, where we learn that fewer than 25 percent of the city's African American males will graduate from high school. This is the stage where the moving documentary The Boys of Baraka begins, and before the film's over, we will have traveled to Kenya for a year, only to return to the violent dead end of Baltimore's slums.
Documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady introduce us to pubescent boys from the city's out-of-control public schools: They're heartbreaking and funny and innocent the way all children can be (with a great editor choosing select footage), but they're also prone to violence, rage, and self-defeatism. Twenty of these boys are hand selected to attend an alternative school in Kenya, where they'll be miles from any city, have giraffes walk past their windows at night, and hopefully be gifted a future that would never exist if they stayed in Baltimore.
The Baraka School, as the program's known, works. Richard, who wrote and read at a second-grade level, begins to write poetry in his free time. Another student discovers an aptitude for math. But most notably, their self-esteem and self-discipline skyrocket, and we witness many of them turning into bright young men.
But then shit hits the fan and the whole program falls apart—you'll have to see the movie to see how and why it all goes down, but there's no Hollywood ending here. Although the filmmakers frustratingly leave many questions unanswered (What, exactly, is this school? Why are all the teachers white?), The Boys of Baraka is entirely compelling, thanks to Ewing and Grady's unobtrusive documentary style, and the persistent focus on their tender and damaged human subjects.