Where is Dr. King's Dream Today?

As we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is only appropriate to see where his dream of social justice and equal opportunity is today. The new film by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, "The Boys of Baraka," shares a glimpse of Dr. King's ideal in today's public school system.

According to these filmmakers, equal opportunity and potential for social mobility are far from reality for lower-income, inner-city children, who are predominantly African American and Hispanic. Public schools in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Oakland and thousands of urban areas across the country look almost exactly like schools in Mississippi 50 years ago -- poorly funded, segregated and offering low-quality education.

"The Boys of Baraka" documents the lives of four 12-year-old boys from the rough streets of Baltimore, who escape their fate and find better education in Kenya. Richard, his younger brother Romesh, Devon and Montrey went to a school where 75 percent of African American boys do not graduate from high school. They were selected, along with 16 other seventh-graders and 20 eighth-graders, to take part in an experimental private boarding school -- the Baraka School in rural Laikipia, Kenya.

The film skillfully captures their individual journeys and transitions from their toxic home lives -- Devon's mom is struggling with drug addiction, Richard and Romesh's father is in jail -- and the realities of their violent inner-city environment to the potential-filled lives they are allowed to lead at the Baraka School.

"The Boys of Baraka" brings to the big screen what thousands of children and families across this nation endure every day: the fight for potential, the fight for an education.

WireTap spoke to Heidi Ewing about their new film.

Why did you decide to do a film on the Baraka School?

Well, actually I had read an article about it very randomly several years ago in a Time magazine that was lying around the production office I was working in. There was a sidebar article on this alternative experimental boarding school in it, and I thought it was a wild concept and a strange idea, and the makings of an important film, at least an interesting film. And then when Rachel [Grady] and I started Loki films soon after that, it was one of the first projects we started developing. We started attempting to get access to the school through the Abell Foundation [co-founder of the Baraka School]. And after a year of poking and prodding them, they finally agreed to allow us to make the film.

Was there a particular message you wanted to convey through this film?

At the beginning of the making of this film, it was more of a curiosity -- "Did this program work or not?" "Does removing a child from a toxic environment and allowing him to start over in a completely different place … does that work? And is that good, is that bad, is it realistic?" It sort of started out with those types of questions in mind.

And then, of course, with the boys, it became very personal. We fell in love with the kids right away. We befriended the families, and we got a very strong relationship with all those kids and their parents. Then the kids started to sparkle, and then we recognized how incredible these kids were. And seeing that juxtaposed to the poverty in which these kids live and the lack of opportunity, and then the dangers in their neighborhoods, it started to become a film about potential and the impossibly wasted potential.

There was no reason the kids in our film couldn't go on to be an attorney or doctor or social worker or graduate from Princeton or do whatever any other person with privilege could do. And so it became to us a number of things, following their story and their narrative the most truthful way we could, [and] showing to the audience -- of these kids who represent one of the million kids in America -- that they have what it takes but are just not given the proper opportunity. We really wanted to make clear what these kids are capable of and also what they're up against in inner-city America.

Do you think the boys in the film also wanted to show this reality?

I don't think they ever realized the kind of power this medium has. But then they realized after we stuck around for years. It took us three and a half years to make the film. They realized how we kept showing up, and how we were determined to do something. They stayed dedicated and loyal to the project, and I think that's because they knew --they had an inkling, anyway -- that there was a bigger story being told here. I'd like to believe that anyway.

How did you ensure you captured candid and sincere moments from the boys featured in the film?

Kids are amazing subjects for films because they have very short attention spans. And you know, the first few shoots, they are definitely hamming it up for their friends and doing shout outs to their friends. But they got over that quickly because we didn't respond to it. And we explained to them that it would never end up in the film. And if you look in the camera, we won't use it. They really kind of got over it quickly and became the most natural subjects that I've ever experienced.

And that's why I think making films about kids is a real joy because it's pretty easy to get to the heart of the matter with kids. Whereas with adults, I think there's a lot more layers of self-protection and delusion.

We also had questions that they've never been asked before, even within their own families. And when questions were put to them, they were kind of excited to answer those questions. They were boiling with opinions and comments and observations that no one's ever asked them before.

Have any of the boys featured in the film seen the film?

Of course, they all saw the film. A month before it went out, they saw it privately. We went to each of their homes, and we showed the film to them and their moms and discussed the film with them. And got their blessing before it was ever brought to public. They were very emotional screenings. They were probably the most powerful screenings we have ever had.

And the mayor of Baltimore is using it right now, trying to get funding for a boarding school in Baltimore. And he made an announcement a few weeks ago that it has inspired him to work with the Seeds Foundation -- which is a residential boarding school in D.C. -- and they're building one now in Baltimore.

And the community has taken it along as its own, and it's being used with educators and cabinet members in a lot of different ways to bring up the discussion of the inner-city, and what's wrong with our education system. The film could be used in so many different ways, and Baltimore especially has sort of adopted it.

We open there actually February 10, so I think there will be lots more discussion once the film opens there. It's played a few times at the Maryland Film Festival. Now it's going to be opening up in the city [Baltimore], and hopefully it'll be there for a while.

Speaking of the film's ability to be used in so many different ways, the film also shows an unfortunate reality of nonprofits. The reality that many nonprofits are not able to carry out their programs due to funding, or in this case, funding and threats of terrorism.

It really comes down to money. The bottom line is the embassy in Nairobi was closed for one week. They said terrorist threats. A lot of people argue it was a fig leaf, or a convenient excuse to pull the funding from the school. The heads of the foundation already had it in their minds that they wanted the school to have more extreme, dramatic results. The program was about seven years old, and it was working. Seventy-five percent of the kids who graduated from the Baraka school have gone on to finish high school, as opposed to 75 percent of African American boys in Baltimore who don't.

In my opinion, it was working. But I think they wanted to put their money elsewhere. The terrorism threat was a very convenient occurrence. They owe the children at least one more year.

Are the kids ever going to get the one year they didn't get?

No. They owed those kids two years, and they gave them one and dropped them. And I think the film became even more important when that happened. I think a lot of these programs can be fly-by-night. It can be hard to maintain funding even if the intentions are in the right place.


Richard and Romesh in Kenya


This country does not put a premium on education. There are not many sub-committees on the education crisis in Congress. The only national program we've heard about is the "No Child Left Behind," which is extremely questionable in its effectiveness. I don't know why it's not the most heated center of our country's political life right now -- the education question.

Baltimore is Detroit is Oakland is inner-city Philadelphia is Atlanta I mean, you go to any inner-city in this country and it's like Baltimore. I don't know, it's mind boggling to me that so much is left to smaller nonprofits to come to these kids' assistance. I don't think it's right.

What do you think they missed out on from not having that second year?

A lot of those kids needed a second year. Richard's younger brother, Romesh -- it could have saved his life. Now he's not faring well. He is living with friends and floating in and out of public school. He could have benefited so much from a second year. A lot of those kids needed that.

How many of the boys in the film are on a better path now?

It's a mixed bag, I think. Some of them are doing all right, some of them have gone on to the criminal justice system, some of the kids have moved, one kid's in jail -- it's very mixed. Our kids are doing OK. We talk to Devon almost every day. Devon is doing great. He's a class president and has become good friends with the mayor of Baltimore. He's also making a film about the pastor of his church.

Montrey attended a boarding school in Mississippi for a semester but came back to Baltimore and is attending a decent public school there and is doing well. Richard did drop out of school but he recently signed up for Job Corps outside of Baltimore. He's living on the campus there. And he's enjoying it and liking it a lot. He's in a program to become a correctional officer. I'm the most worried about Romesh, his younger brother, who's just playing hooky a lot and not living at home. He definitely could be the victim of a lot of negative influences out there.

Were most of the staff at the Baraka School American rather than Kenyan or East African?

The staff was a mix of Africans and Americans. A big flaw in the program was there were no African American male role models for those kids. The teachers were all very well-meaning. A lot of them had worked for the Peace Corps and different NGOs, and were young and kind of hopeful and optimistic people. It was about half and half between Africans and Americans.

All the Americans were white, though?

Yes, all the Americans were white with the exception of one counselor who was an African American woman. That was the first thing we asked when we got to the campus. Whoa, the number of people you meet who are white, and you're in Africa. It's totally strange.

We asked them, and they said they tried to recruit African Americans, but they didn't have much success. They pay the teachers $5,000 a year, which is extremely low. But at the same time, they should have tried harder.

But the teachers that were there were very, very dedicated and loved the kids. And that mattered a lot to the kids. That mattered the most to the kids.

Is the Baraka School still open?

It's closed. The buildings are still there, but cows are on the soccer field. No one is there. Although we did hear a family of Masai have moved there. It's a Masai area. But the land is available to anyone who wants to use it. The Abell Foundation said it would definitely sign it over to a worthy cause. But no one has stepped up yet. We're trying to get Oprah involved.

What would you like students who are viewing this film to know or remember while watching this film?

Your environment, while it's extremely powerful and sometimes hard to overcome, a challenging home life is also very difficult to overcome. I don't want to be corny, but I hope these kids could be an inspiration to other kids, that they can overcome obstacles. And don't let anyone tell you, you are stupid. These kids have overcome and continue to overcome incredible odds. I hope these kids inspire other kids to do the same.


"The Boys of Baraka" is already playing at selected venues across the country. A DVD of the film will be released in the spring. For more information about the film and screening locations, visit their website.

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