Baltimore’s 12 O’Clock Boys are a dirt bike crew who literally believe in ride or die. If it weren’t for their Sundays in the streets causing havoc for the cops, boredom and stress would get them in worse trouble. And from what we see in Lotfy Nathan’s documentary, we believe it.
The Boys, so named for doing wheelies where they rear straight back like a minute hand stretching for midnight, are heroes to neighborhood kids like Pug, a small-for-his-age scrapper who we watch mature from 12 to 15 while he begs to join the group. But they’re a road hazard to the B’more police, and thugs to the local citizenry, who seem to have an instant suspicion of any young black male with a loud set of wheels. “The problem is that they’re African-American,” admits a resident. “I don’t care if they get hurt. Frankly, I don’t care if one of them dies.”
Riding bikes sure seems like a better hobby than drugs or gangs, but both are illegal. Unlike Critical Mass, the semi-sanctioned swarm of cyclists who take to the streets once a month around the globe (including in Baltimore), the Boys and the cops are in a complex — and sometimes deadly — standoff. Officially, the police have a no-chase policy to cut down on the crashes that have killed both riders and pedestrians. (One ex-cop who appears to have left the force after instigating a fatal wreck estimates 10 to 15 people die every summer in such altercations.) Instead, the cops track the pack by helicopter and do, well, nothing, which doesn’t seem like the smartest use of resources for a cash-strapped city where nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty.
12 O’Clock Boys is an urban western with ball caps and bikes in place of cowboy hats and horses. And, like the best westerns, both sides are at fault. That their dirt bike parades are rebellious just makes the Boys like them even more. Nathan shoots their rides with the slow-motion glamour of a nature documentary, but he doesn’t lionize the gang: We see them pushing around the police like cocky children, pulling alongside cop cars and kicking their doors before spinning a U-turn and darting away. They crave the scream of sirens, the adrenaline rush of a close call, and the glee of showing the cops who really runs the streets. Most of all, they love the attention: the millions of hits on YouTube, the fans in Japan, the kids like Pug who gush about their exploits. They’re also happy to mythologize themselves. Beams leader Wheelie Wayne, “The dirt bike pack formed like Voltron and I just happened to be the head.”
Pug, our manically restless mini-man, wants to share that spotlight. Jokes a classmate, he pretends that helicopters are searching for him “so girls can think he’s so bad.” His mom, Coco, a former exotic dancer, tells him that bikes aren’t everything, but she’s not the most credible adult. She doesn’t care when he gets tattooed during a party at their house, and when he’s caught skipping school, she’s angry mainly because she has to spend an afternoon in court. Or maybe she’ll just hand him over to the system altogether, she threatens, grumbling “I’ma get his ass evaluated.”
No wonder Pug considers himself an adult, too. “I been on this earth for a decade and a couple years,” he insists. “I’m a grown-ass man.” There are people in his family and his neighborhood who haven’t lived much longer. When violence is a daily fact, who are we to tell him what life has in store? Pug is bitter, cynical, and too stressed out to think about the world beyond Baltimore. Besides, he shrugs, other cities have earthquakes and hurricanes. Guns in his town just kill a couple hundred people a year. Earthquakes and hurricanes can kill thousands of people at once.
What lingers in Nathan’s documentary isn’t the swaggering trails of diesel fumes. It’s the sadness of watching Pug narrow his options: getting suspended from school, downgrading his ambitions from veterinarian to dogcatcher, pinning everything on that future Sunday afternoon when he can ride with the pack. You can’t help but like this bright, energetic preteen, and it hurts to see him harden into someone the city can write off as just another hostile hood rat.
“Every city has a Pug, every hood has a Pug,” says Wheelie Wayne. “This is what the ghetto produces.” We want Pug to get his dream bike. And then we want him to hop on it and ride far, far away.