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The Boys of Baraka Reviews

In a poverty blighted city like Baltimore, M.D., where it's estimated that less than 25 percent of young black men ever graduate from high school, the visionary but tragically short-lived Baraka School offered poor boys a unique opportunity. Each year, 20 young men from the city's overcrowded and miserably underfunded public-school system were selected to participate in a two-year program at this all-boys boarding school located far from home. Very far, in fact: The Baraka School is situated 20 miles from the nearest town in East Kenya, Africa. While many of the chosen kids are no angels, Baraka is neither brat camp nor reform school. Instead, it's a structured learning environment cum wilderness experience that teaches boys the skills and self-confidence they need to graduate from high school back home, and hopefully to steer them away from the two institutions that routinely collect too many of Baltimore's young black men: prison and the morgue. This deeply moving 84-minute documentary from filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady follows four 12- and 13-year-old Baltimore boys — all from troubled, broken homes — as they undergo the selection process, attend a summer orientation course, then finally take off for Africa. Trading drug-infested streets for the wide open bush, and the family cat for hedgehogs and lizards, these boys quickly begin to thrive under the one-on-one attention of their teachers and the school counselors they desperately need, and they begin to discover things about themselves that had been virtually snuffed out by their grim urban surroundings. But it isn't until the boys return home for a two-month summer vacation — a break that turns out to be far longer than any one expected — and are once again immersed in the violence of the streets and their homes that we see in heartbreaking relief just how important the school and the promise it holds for something better has become. Shot over the course of three years and told primarily through the voices of the boys themselves, the film is at once warmly funny and very moving, showing not only the effects of poverty and urban neglect, but how much difference a little bit of attention can make in the lives of so-called "at risk" children.