In the post–Hoop Dreams era of docs like Born Into Brothels, there seems to be a run on films about at-risk kids availed of dubious interventions. The Boys of Baraka‘s heart may be in the right place, but its portrait of poor Baltimore kids selected to attend boarding school in Kenya is rife with suspect perspectives. There’s a sense of poverty-grubbing—from the opening scene of kids roughhousing on the mean streets, to the chaos of the public schools, to the voyeuristic eavesdropping on stoop-side bravado, to the crying-baby family feuds the film privileges as glimpses of project home life.
We meet the boys—thoughtful 13-year-old underachiever Richard, his academically inclined younger brother Romesh, 12-year-old preacher Devon, and hothead Montrey—when they’re selected to attend the two-year Baraka program. Thus begins what feels like a telegraphed buildup to a reality-TV-style culture clash. Since the filmmakers do nothing to flesh out the program for any viewer actually invested in education policy, all we’re left with is their obvious desire for country-city frisson. They find some when the kids hike to Mt. Kenya or chase the lizards infesting their bedrooms. Cuts to grazing zebras and an ominous drum soundtrack do the rest of the work.
Through visits to the remote school, we’re privy to crunchy, mostly white staff imparting lessons on conflict resolution to these teens. Naturally, the peaceful place is good for scholarship. Richard gains new confidence; his brother makes honor roll, as does Devon. Montrey discovers an aptitude for math. And when Baraka suspends operations after a U.S. embassy closure, their public school re-entry is bumpy. It is Richard, the film’s broken heart, who expresses the deepest sense of loss. But the fact that these filmmakers pay back his candor by rolling up on him nine months later to cast him as a lost cause seems crass. Here’s hoping for his sake that this fatalistic arc is as fishy as it appears.