Sorry, but Boys of Baraka is a disingenuous docu-drama which

fudges the truth in service of an infuriating, self-serving agenda,

namely, accolades and awards for the film itself,

Kenya v. Mean Streets of Baltimore

Boys of Baraka

 Review by Kam Williams

After Born into Brothels won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, it was only a matter of time before the imitators came along. That film chronicled the efforts of a couple of fledgling filmmakers to improve the lot of some Calcutta street urchins whose mothers were all prostitutes.

Conveniently borrowing Born into Brothels’ reliance on the letter “B” for alliteration, Boys of Baraka follows similar efforts to save about 20 adolescent underachievers from Baltimore by shipping them off to an experimental, academically-oriented school located in rural Kenya. I hesitate to review this film at all, because it frequently struck false notes, though presenting itself as a documentary.

Scene after scene seems staged, starting with the recruitment sales pitch delivered in the auditorium of a ghetto-based middle school where we witness a counselor attempting to scare 12 year-olds into the study abroad program by inappropriately suggesting that they have only three prospects in life: prison, a casket or a high school diploma.

In another equally unlikely tableau, we see the mother of two applicants worrying that if only one of her sons is accepted, the child left behind will grow up to be a killer. Throughout this highly-exploitative production, the children appear to be playing to the camera in a rather unnatural manner, as if they’ve been coached prior to filming.

I even suspect that scenes which were supposedly shot before the students left for Africa were actually re-enactments made after their return. Worst of all is the picture’s overall suggestion that because the Baltimore schools are failing black youths, these boys would be better off in Africa, away from their families and in the care of non-native whites for two school years, boarding at an institution without most modern conveniences.

Sorry, but Boys of Baraka is a disingenuous docu-drama which fudges the truth in service of an infuriating, self-serving agenda, namely, accolades and awards for the film itself, and at the expense of accuracy or improving the lot of the young souls sacrificed in the process.

Poor (0 stars) / Unrated / Running time: 84 minutes / Distributor: ThinkFilm

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Goodbye City Streets, Hello African Wilderness

The Boys of Baraka

Movie Review by Stephen Holden

The Boys of Baraka  gives a poignant human face to an alarming statistic: 76 percent of black male students in Baltimore city schools do not graduate from high school. The documentary, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, tells you why. A toxic poor-neighborhood environment destroys hope and undermines self-esteem. This setting, from which a group of Baltimore middle-school students are extracted and sent to a school in the African wilderness, is the same nihilistic street culture portrayed on the HBO series “The Wire.” In this experimental program 20 “at risk” 12- and 13-year-old black male students are transported 10,000 miles to the Baraka School in rural Kenya. Founded in 1996 on a 150-acre ranch where there is no television or full-time electricity, it offers academic instruction and strict but gentle discipline in an environment where giraffes and zebras roam. Children who complete the two-year program have a high success rate when applying for entrance at the city’s most competitive high schools. Early in the film, a straight-talking recruiter for the school tells an assembly of prospective students that their futures point to one of three options: an orange jumpsuit and “nice bracelets” (prison), a black suit and a brown box (an early death) or a black cap and gown and a diploma. Asked what would become of her two sons, Richard and Romesh, if one were accepted and the other not, their mother bluntly declares that one would become a king and the other a killer. (Both are accepted.) The Boys of Baraka follows four of the students chosen in 2002, during their first year away from home. In addition to Richard and Romesh, we meet Devon, who is musically inclined and dreams of becoming a preacher, and Montrey, a troublemaker who hopes for a career in science. As the film follows a month-by-month chronology, the boys visibly flourish. Romesh, who initially tries to run away, stays and makes the honor roll. Montrey learns to control his temper. Richard, who reads at second-grade level when he arrives, composes and recites a poem, “I Will Survive,” which describes his new-found optimism. The boys play soccer and climb to the top of nearby Mount Kenya. They meet Africans and marvel at their sense of unity. The movie seems headed in a predictably inspirational direction until the boys return to Baltimore for their summer vacation and encounter the old stresses and temptations. Then sad news arrives. Because of regional politics and threats to its security, the Kenya school must suspend operation. Both the students and the families are crushed and angry. One father bitterly observes that his son has a better chance of being killed on a Baltimore street corner than in a terrorist attack in Africa. A question is asked but never answered: why can’t the program be relocated closer to Baltimore? As the movie follows the four into the future and they deal with their disappointment and try to make the best of the year they had, the filmmakers seem as frustrated as the subjects. But the movie still manages to come up with a conditional happy ending.The Boys of Baraka is so rich that you wish there were more of it. Instead of detailed examinations of each boy’s progress, it has time only to assemble bits and pieces of information as it jumps forward. Almost nothing is said about the school itself, its origins, its financing and its staff. But the film’s message is clear and pointed: If you take the boy out of the poor neighborhood, you stand a good chance of taking the despair and hopelessness of the poor neighborhood out of the boy.The Boys of Baraka: Produced and directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady; directors of photography, Marco Franzoni and Tony Hardmon; edited by Enat Sidi; music by J. J. McGeehan; released by ThinkFilm. Running time: 84 minutes. This film is not rated.

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The black cinematographer’s rebuttal

As the cinematographer on the documentary, The Boys of Baraka I found Kam Williams’ review shamefully inaccurate. His snide remark that the filmmakers were somehow mimicking the title of last year’s Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary, Born Into Brothels, speaks more to his own cynical thought processes than to the true intentions of the filmmakers.

Williams repeatedly implies that many of the scenes in the movie were staged going so far as to speculate that, “scenes supposedly shot before the students left for Africa were actually re-enactments made after the students returned.” First of all even if one were to attempt to re-enact scenes that take place one year prior the viewer would immediately recognize the incongruities. We began filming the boys in Baltimore during their 6th grade summer and it is obvious that the boys at 11 and 12 years old do not look, sound, nor behave like the young men who returned to Baltimore a year later.

Secondly, the directors (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady) were not “coaching” the boys, their parents, or anyone else who appears in the movie. The Boys of Baraka is a documentary not a reality TV program. Reality television shows are highly scripted and shot in a couple of months, we shot for two and a half years with no sign as to where the story might take us. If Mr. Williams had the inclination to follow a group of subjects for two to three years he too would discover that his subjects would tell their own stories in their own words.  This story required patience, care and a willingness to listen and learn, no scripting was necessary

As an African-American man who has spent over fifteen years documenting the issues affecting our communities the most disturbing question for me is what compelled Mr. Williams to make such insulting accusations towards two filmmakers who have devoted three years of their lives to exposing this important issue affecting our young people.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Williams attempted to discredit the veracity of the movie and by extension the good name of the boys and their families. The good news is that this film is already beginning to spark change. Since viewing The Boys of Baraka Mayor O’Malley of Baltimore, his staff, and the SEED foundation are exploring the development of a Baltimore based boarding school for children underperforming in the traditional public school setting. Perhaps Mr. Williams should consider making a donation. — Tony Hardmon

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To the Editor: Having spent over 3 years of our lives making The Boys of Baraka  we were shocked and dismayed by Kam Williams bizarre “review” of our documentary.  It is sensational and irresponsible reporting to lodge lies and accusations such as these against us – and by association – against  the families and kids in this film. Why would any writer with any sense of ethics write such cruel and outrageous things –and why would The Black Star News print them –  without even bothering to phone either one the films directors to check the facts? Since none of the proper steps were taken to include the facts and the article is already in circulation, we find it necessary to answer these accusations, as base and untrue as they are. None – not one frame – of The Boys of Baraka is scripted, staged or re-enacted. Every single scene in this film was captured as part of the 3 years of shooting and 350 hours of tape that were the result. The kids were themselves: their wonderful dynamic 12 year-old selves Every scene happens in the order it was filmed. To make it perfectly clear: scenes in the film that take place before the kids go to Africa were filmed before the kids went to Africa. Scenes that take place in Africa were filmed in Africa. Scenes that take place when the children return home were filmed after the children returned home. No smoke, no mirrors, no coaching, no reality—TV elements. Just patience and trust and friendship that we enjoyed and continue to enjoy with the subjects of the film. In one of the more petty claims in the article, Kam calls us “imitators” of Born into Brothels, a wonderful documentary film that addresses the plight of children in India. We started filming in March 2002, two years before Brothels was released. Additionally, anyone who knows anything about the life of a documentary filmmaker knows the enormous amount of time and finances (our own for much of the production before The Corporation for Public Broadcasting helped us finish the film) that go into a production like this. To even suggest that a filmmaker sees a good doc and rushes off to make one just like it is sorely mistaken, especially since it takes many years from start to finish!

Also, to imply that we even used the letter “B” in the film’s title in order to achieve the same success as The Boys of Baraka is just cheap, silly and laughable: a man with an agenda grasping at straws to make an ill-informed point. Sincerely, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady,  Directors, The Boys of Baraka

posted 3 December 2005

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Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas

Clarence Thomas, the most powerful black man in America, has yet to get his due—Thomas retained a special anger for the aristocratic, generally lighter-skinned blacks who had looked down on him. That scorn, believe his biographers [Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher], partially explains his jurisprudence, particularly his opposition to affirmative action, which disproportionately helps bourgeois blacks. Thomas’s humiliating Senate confirmation hearings only made him more bitter. . . .  He denounced blind racial loyalty, even as he confessed that he was pained “to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm.” But Thomas said that he had no intention of changing his ways. He defiantly asserted “my right to think for myself, to refuse to have my ideas assigned to me as though I was an intellectual slave because I’m black.” . . .  Yet if Merida and Fletcher are to be believed, there is a tragic quality to Thomas, who “wears his blackness like a heavy robe that both ennobles and burdens him.” And they question whether, despite his yearning to be free, he can ever lay that burden down.—  Newsweek

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 Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

By Juan Williams

Thirteen years before becoming the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall’s place in American history was secured, with his victory over school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Williams (Eyes on the Prize) offers readers a thorough, straightforward life of “the unlikely leading actor in creating social change in the United States in the twentieth century.” Although he was denied access to the files of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where Marshall devoted more than 40 years of his law career, and worked without the cooperation of Marshall’s family, Williams has managed to fill in the blanks with over 150 interviews, including lengthy sessions with Marshall himself in 1989. Marshall is portrayed as an outspoken critic of black militancy and nonviolent demonstrations. Williams mentions, but does not dwell on, Marshall’s history of heavy drinking, womanizing and sexual harassment. But his private contacts with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, even while that organization was working to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, receives critical attention.

This relationship “could have cost him his credibility among civil rights activists had it become known,” writes Williams. Likewise, it would appear that his extra-legal activities and charges of incompetence and Communist connections would, if publicized, have kept him from the Supreme Court, as he himself admitted. Nevertheless, this work will stand as an accessible and fitting tribute to a champion of individual rights and “the architect of American race relations.—Publishers Weekly

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The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly).


Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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Jefferson’s Pillow

The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism

By Roger W. Wilkins

 In Jefferson’s Pillow, Wilkins returns to America’s beginnings and the founding fathers who preached and fought for freedom, even though they owned other human beings and legally denied them their humanity. He asserts that the mythic accounts of the American Revolution have ignored slavery and oversimplified history until the heroes, be they the founders or the slaves in their service, are denied any human complexity. Wilkins offers a thoughtful analysis of this fundamental paradox through his exploration of the lives of George Washington, George Mason, James Madison, and of course Thomas Jefferson. He discusses how class, education, and personality allowed for the institution of slavery, unravels how we as Americans tell different sides of that story, and explores the confounding ability of that narrative to limit who we are and who we can become. An important intellectual history of America’s founding, Jefferson’s Pillow will change the way we view our nation and ourselves.

update 11 July 2012