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Comments on the Boys of Baraka Screening

Comments on the Boys of Baraka Screening

Ronald F. Means, MD

Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellow at Johns Hopkins Hospital


On a snowy night in February, my wife and I decided to catch a movie at The Charles Theater.  Earlier in the week, I had seen a news story about a small, independent film entitled The Boys of Baraka about twenty “at-risk” Baltimore boys chosen to go to boarding school in Kenya to better prepare them for high school.  We decided to see it.  Fortunately, due to the snow, it was a relatively empty theater because I spent the next one and a half hours hearing my wife sob and struggling to maintain my own composure.  After viewing the movie, we had a special opportunity to hear one of the boys featured in the film discuss his experience first-hand.


After leaving the movie, my wife and I talked about how much we take for granted.  We each thought back to our childhood and discussed how college wasn’t really a choice, but an expectation.  We discussed the injustice caused by the lack of opportunities for children like those featured in the film.  These injustices are clearly evident - poverty, poor education, and racism - but there are subsequent effects that are equally devastating.  These effects manifest as a foreshortened sense of future, self-degradation, community violence, crime, disregard for education, ignorance of the possibility of and means to success, apathy, distrust in and disrespect for authority and many more.


Seeing the boys in the movie reminded me of my work as a child and adolescent psychiatrist.  Nearly every day, I see inner-city youth with the chief complaint of aggression or “acting out”.  These children display many of the aforementioned effects caused in large part by societal problems.  Only rarely do we, as psychiatrists, truly understand the factors that contribute to the development of these behaviors.  Being an African-American male from inner-city Detroit, I often observe mental health providers who are limited in their understanding of  inner-city life and what it actually entails.  Judgments are all too often made about lifestyle “choices” of the inner-city population.  Considering my own background, I’d like to believe that I don’t make the same mistakes.  Unfortunately, I have found myself making the same judgments, most often when feeling frustrated and powerless.


After seeing the movie, I decided to collaborate with Dr. Shanta Powell of the University of Maryland’s department of child and adolescent psychiatry and the Maryland Psychiatric Society to sponsor a free screening of The Boys of Baraka.  Simply, I wanted as many mental health professionals as possible to see how the current conditions in which many inner-city children are raised influences their lives destructively—how centuries of poverty, poor education, violence, drugs, crime, and racism,  as depicted in the movie,  influence generation after generation.  I wanted everyone to see that the “choices” these boys make are clearly not the same choices that were available to most of us at the age of twelve.  I wanted everyone to understand that many of the behaviors that we find so difficult to treat often began as adaptive mechanisms to the chaos of daily life.


After the viewing on April 5, we heard from two of the young men featured in the film.  In addition, Dr. Kenneth Rogers of the University of Maryland’s department of child and adolescent psychiatry reminded us of the difficulties of growing up and obtaining an appropriate education in inner-city schools.  One young man, portrayed as the main protagonist in the movie, was asked specifically what led to his dramatic change.  He simply stated “I didn’t want to be the only fool fighting all of the time.”  This funny and poignant comment made me think of the many kids who choose to fight because they are surrounded by violence and can’t be the only one not fighting.


It was great to hear about the experiences of the young men during their time in Kenya, but it was even more inspiring just to hear them talk like healthy sixteen year-old boys about school, sports and, of course, dating.  After the movie, I drove one guest speaker home.  He told me stories about his life after the movie release including meeting various stars.  We also talked about his aspirations to be a chemist or an actor or a basketball player (I may have missed a few).  I couldn’t help but think that this is how age sixteen should be experienced (minus the LA movie premiers).  It is that freedom of childhood, the time to focus on school, friends, family and age appropriate activities that is taken from many youth who grow up much too quickly because of the harsh realities of inner-city living.    


I would love to hear that viewers were so moved by the film that they intend to advocate for educational reform and improved domestic policies to correct the roots causes of crime, violence and poverty.  In reality, I realize that hope may be far-fetched (I, myself, struggle to be that proactive).  In the meantime, while those larger issues persist, at the very least, we can have increased awareness when treating our patients.  We can have a better understanding of what contributes to their behaviors.  As we work from the top-down to fix the large problems of our society, we can also work bottom-up with each patient.  We can attempt to provide some small, supportive change individually; even if it is just being more understanding.  



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