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THE VIEW FROM BARAKA! A lauded new movie helps us explore the lives of low-income schoolchildren // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 2006

HOW HAVE BIG DEMS GOTTEN SLIMED: Initially, we saw this Los Angeles Times column by Jonathan Chait because Kevin Drum linked to it. In his piece, Chait attempts to figure out why RNC chairman Ken Mehlman said that Hillary Clinton is an “angry person.” More generally, he describes—or pretends to describe—the process by which Major Dems have been slimed in the past fifteen years.

We say Chait pretends to explore this issue because there’s so much he predictably omits (more tomorrow). But then again, a good deal of what he does say is just silly. For example, there he goes again, one more time, with this absurd assertion:

CHAIT (2/12/06): The main story here, though, is that the GOP is trying to find a way to adapt its patterns of characterological attack to a potential female candidate. Think of the criticisms you have heard about previous (male) Democratic candidates. The most popular one is "flip-flopper," a charge leveled with equal fervor against Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry. Before the last election, top Republicans also put the word out in the media that they called John Edwards the "Breck girl" and that Kerry "looks French."
Republicans attacked Gore as a “flip-flopper?” They leveled this charge “with equal fervor” against Kerry and Gore? Chait has made this claim before—a claim that is deeply divorced from reality. During Campaign 2000, Gore was attacked as a compulsive liar, as a girlie-man, as delusional, as a fraud—and as the world’s most repulsive lifelong career climber. (Gore “would lick the bathroom floor to be president,” to cite Chris Matthews’ favorite analysis.) But was Gore ever attacked as a flipper? We’ve spent years researching Campaign 2000, and we can’t think, just off-hand, of a single such episode. Whatever Chait is trying to do in this piece, he isn’t trying very hard to tell us about our recent shared history. We say that because Chait is very smart, and because his work on this topic has been foolish.

But then, foppish fellows of Chait’s effete class have done their best, over the years, to avoid discussing our recent shared history—especially as it involves the mainstream press corps’ conduct toward Big Major Democrats. Most particularly, they seem determined to avoid discussing what really occurred in the War Against Gore—the aggressive, two-year press corps campaign which sent George Bush to the White House. No one else fakes it as poorly as Chait; indeed, in that passage, he stands out again by the absurdity of his descriptions. The GOP attacked Gore as a flip-flopper? Just as fervently as with Kerry? Unless he was off the planet from 1999 through 2004, Chait is just making this up.

For ourselves, we’re sick of reading this cohort’s bullroar about the way Big Dems have been slimed. To all appearances, they baldly spin you to protect their group interests. We’ll examine their foppistry on this general topic for the next several days. Tomorrow, we’ll turn to this recent formulaic piece by the exalted and most-high Lord Kinsley. Go ahead—pre-read Kinsley’s column. Can you see what has been deleted from his sadly formulaic account?

SMILE-A-WHILE! INVENTING THE DETAILS: In truth, we were drawn to Chait’s piece by the passage Drum quoted—a passage in which Chait quotes Naomi Wolf, and manages to misspell her name in the process! Is this some sort of smirking gang symbol, sent by Chait to his lordly home-fellows? (Wolf is one part of the larger tale Chait’s cohort doesn’t want you to hear. It’s intriguing that he cites her at all.)

At any rate, we had to chuckle as Chait made up his details, like his account of the sliming of Gore. For example, we knew exactly what we’d find when we Nexised the following bit-of-bullroar:

CHAIT: Part of it is the Republican habit of calling anybody who makes a sharp criticism of President Bush "angry." They have further conflated anti-Bush "anger" with left-wing radicalism. The term of art that has made its way into mainstream news coverage is “angry Bush-hating left.” The implicit suggestion is that anybody who disagrees too sharply with Bush is angry, and therefore ideologically radical, and therefore shouldn't be taken too seriously.
Good grief! In this passage, Chait’s general analysis is on the mark, but he’s more than happy to make up his details. We looked up that alleged “term of art,” the one which has made its way so deeply into our mainstream news coverage. Our finding? What else! According to the Nexis archives, this incredibly common “term of art” has been used two times in American history—including once on Sunday by Chait! You just have to chuckle at “journalism” like this. But tomorrow, we’ll grimace as we read Kinsley’s column—a formulaic piece which keeps you proles in the dark, as Kinsley’s high class often does.

STARTS TOMORROW—THREATENING CARROLL: “It has been eight years since Maryland told [Charles Carroll Middle School] to shape up, or else,” Nick Anderson writes in Sunday’s Post. But: “So far, actions and threats have been fruitless.” What actually happens when school bureaucracies “demand” that low-income schools succeed? As we have noted (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/6/06), this is the groaning flaw in the “standards movement,” and in programs like No Child Left Behind. In these programs, bureaucrats “demand” that schools improve—but rarely tell them how to do it. This is truly wonderful work, if you’re able to get it.

Anderson presents an intriguing profile of Charles Carroll, a mostly-black school in Prince George’s County, a suburb of Washington. But do “threats” and “demands” end up helping such schools? We won’t be able to answer that question. But starting tomorrow, we’ll ask.

THE VIEW FROM BARAKA: A new documentary, The Boys of Baraka, is now playing in twenty American cities. If you want to spend some quality time considering the lives of low-income kids, we strongly suggest that you see it.

The film follows a group of “at-risk” Baltimore middle-school students who attend the Baraka School, a charter school in the Kenyan outback. The Post’s Ann Hornaday takes it from there:

HORNADAY (2/10/06): A documentary about four inner-city boys who escape a life of poverty, violence and educational failure to discover their potential at a boarding school in Kenya—sounds like spinach, right?

Well, "The Boys of Baraka.” which follows a group of Baltimore middle school students as they attend the experimental Baraka School, may be nourishing. But it's also rich, sweet, densely layered and deeply satisfying. A film that might have been a dry exercise in earnest nonfiction filmmaking becomes a soaring, artistically complex testament to survival, character and hope.

Through the deeply affecting stories of its four remarkable main characters, "The Boys of Baraka" takes such slogans as "it takes a village" or "a mind is a terrible thing to waste" beyond bumper stickers, reflecting their sentiments not as truisms but truth.

“[T]he film never reverts to easy answers or the dreaded blame game,” Hornaday says; “rather, it lets viewers decide what children are being left behind and why.”

Films like this sometimes get good reviews as a reward for their good intentions. But we thought The Boys of Baraka was amazingly good as a portrait of the actual kids who are actually involved in the actual problems allegedly addressed by No Child Left Behind. A few of our own reactions:

First, despite decades of progress in race relations, inner-city kids are still routinely demonized in our culture’s prevailing imagery. This film provides an especially interesting look at a group of these kids—and at their parents and loved ones. “Listen to what Mommy is saying,” one mother tell her son on departure day, at the airport, as the tears stream down his face. “It’s all right. I’m going to be OK and you’re going to be OK—OK?” And the videograms back and forth from Kenya are especially up-close-and-personal. “Some kids want to go home already,” one boy says, looking down to hide his tears. “I am one of them. But I’m not going to cry, Ma, because I am brave to do this.” We think this film is especially good at showing real scenes from the lives of real children. Our brains are built to create The Other. This film helps undo that process.

Second: In terms of manners and socialization, it’s amazing how much kids can differ from majority culture by the time they’re only eleven or twelve. These are decent, normal kids—but like those two white teen-agers in the PBS documentary Country Boys, they have grown up a million miles from their country’s majority culture. (One example: The film-makers decided to use subtitles for some of these Baltimore kids.) By the way: When these kids get on that plane and leave their neighborhoods behind, you see them getting the kinds of experiences middle-class kids routinely get (as they should). And at Baraka, you see them dropped into an institutional structure which basically seems to be coherent. Many low-income kids never have that experience inside their regular schools.

That said, we’ll cite a striking moment in this film. After completing one year of the planned two-year program, the boys and their parents are told that Baraka’s operation has been suspended (post-9/11 security problems in Kenya). What happens in the meeting where this news is conveyed? Two parents lower their heads and cry; more specifically, they do so when they’re specifically told that their kids will have to return to their Baltimore schools. For the record, those schools are full of decent, hard-working people who are trying to do their best for their students. But we thought that moment bore remarkable witness to one reality of these families’ lives. That reality is mocked when big news orgs present distractions about “schools that work”—especially when those “schools that work” have test scores which are stunningly awful (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/10/06).

Parents lower their heads and cry when told that their kids must go back to those schools. The problems involved in these low-income schools will not be solved by “energetic new principals,” although big news orgs love to suggest otherwise. We thought of this unfortunate impulse when we read the start of Kenneth Turan’s review in the Los Angeles Times:

TURAN (1/20/06): "The Boys of Baraka" is a moving, troubling documentary. Moving because of the nature of the problem it explores, troubling because the film can't help but underline that simple solutions are never going to present themselves, no matter how much we want them to. And we want them to very much.
We think that whole passage is right on-point. Yes, we “very much want” those simple solutions; indeed, big news orgs seem to want them so much that they’re prepared to pretend they exist. That’s the point we made last Friday, discussing the latest bogus tale about the latest “school that works.” But then, news orgs have been telling this story for decades, helping drown out more serious debate.

By all means, go see this movie. By the way, you’ll see it discussed nowhere else on the liberal web. Liberals walked away from black kids long ago. That’s another basic reality with which these families contend.

TURAN ON THROW-AWAY CHILDREN: We thought this part of Turan’s review was worth quoting:

TURAN: “The Boys of Baraka's” greatest service is in shining a light on a problem many people don't want to talk about: our willingness to throw away the lives of kids who grow up in dangerous neighborhoods far from quality schools. The enormous potential of these children, how eagerly they respond to the kinds of educational opportunities more fortunate young people take for granted, should make us wonder how society let things get this bad.
In truth, society didn’t exactly let “things get this bad;” there’s a history here that goes back centuries, back to the days when it was illegal to teach the African-American children of Baltimore. Today, are we “throwing away” the lives of these children? That implies that our school bureaucracies know how to help these kids succeed; more on that topic all this week in our new report, “Ordering Carroll.” Meanwhile, Turan implies that “quality schools” (in the suburbs, we’d guess) could help these kids succeed. But that assumption isn’t obvious, weither. In this passage, Turan himself tilts toward those simple solutions.

By the way, at the Baltimore screening we attended on Friday, three of the Baraka students (now high school sophomores) were on hand for a Q-and-A session. How many kids in their group were helped by their single year in Kenya? About half the group has dropped out of school, one student said. The other half are in high school, doing well. But then, as Turan notes, The Boys of Baraka begins with a statistic which puts things into perspective: “76 percent of Baltimore's African American boys do not graduate from high school.”

CLEAR EYES, OPEN HEARTS: Why does this film seem to look so directly into the souls of its struggling subjects? In the Baltimore Sun, Michael Sragow proposes an explanation:

SRAGOW (2/10/06): For decades it's been an unacknowledged fact that female directors like Gillian Armstrong (High Tide, Little Women) catch unexpected shades of thought and feeling from male performers. In The Boys of Baraka, the same is true with documentary-makers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who zero in on their male subjects with a clear-eyed, open-hearted intimacy. Their heroes are, first of all, boys—quick to show their muscles or proclaim their genius, and just as quick to succumb to unpredictable impulse.

Ewing and Grady know exactly where to position the camera in order to convey internal tension without narration and to capture the kids' point of view.

“The moviemakers dot their story with vignettes that take your breath away,” Sragow writes. But he’s willing to applaud male film-makers too. He ends his review with these words of high praise: “The Boys of Baraka is as open-ended and genuinely ambiguous as the best humanist features—a study of growing up in extremes that recalls Satyajit Ray's The Apu Trilogy and Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows.”

FOR MORE INFO ON BARAKA: This report by the Baltimore Sun’s Jonathan Pitts provides a good deal of information. Pitts: “Each year from 1996 to 2003, 40 or so boys, most of them from fatherless homes, volunteered to leave Baltimore to study at Baraka. There, the typical class size was seven, counselors could watch them constantly, and East Africa's luminous skies, wild terrain and languid pace replaced the drug dealing and violence that formed the backdrop of their lives at home.”