Fans of HBO’s The Wire will immediately recognize the hardscrabble Baltimore inner-city that serves as the backdrop to 12 O’Clock Boys, Lotfy Nathan’s documentary about dirt bike riding on the city’s streets. There are no actual references to the TV series, but the similarities are numerous: blighted street corners, poverty and lack of opportunity, lives cut short by violence, African-American youth with clever nicknames, and the overwhelmed single mothers trying to raise them.
March 10 & 11
Director: Lotfy Nathan
Producers: Eric Blair, Tom Colley, John Kassab, Lotfy Nathan,
Writer: Lotfy Nathan
Cinematographer: Lotfy Nathan
Music: Joe Williams
Editor: Thomas Niles
Cast: Coco, Pug, Steven
Premiere: April 29, 2013 – Hot Docs Festival
US Theatrical Release: January 31, 2014
US Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Despite the familiar look and feel, however, 12 O’Clock Boys never approaches the verisimilitude of The Wire, possibly because unlike that show’s writers, Lotfy Nathan is not from Baltimore (he went to college there and the documentary was spawned from his film class project). He’s an outsider trying to be an insider, passively turning the camera on his subjects and observing their behavior without providing essential context to the wider cultural factors at play. At its worst, 12 O’Clock Boys essentially reinforces many of the stereotypes Nathan may have been out to debunk. Or maybe the film is just meant to be a picture of a niche African-American subculture, in which case I would have loved to seen Werner Herzog take a crack at it instead (his narration over slow-motion footage of dirt bike wheelies would be priceless).
But Nathan is not just interested in showcasing cool dirt bike footage, since the bikers themselves provide plenty of it on YouTube. He is attempting to tell the story of why the bikers ride, what it means to them, and whether they are the menaces to society that Baltimore media makes them out to be. Our guide through this examination is Pug, a precocious pre-teen who idolizes the titular 12 O’Clock Boys (so named, as Pug explains, because their 90-degree wheelies approach the 12 o’clock position) and spends three years trying to join their ranks. Pug’s mother, CoCo, is a young single mother who worries about Pug’s future, alternately relieved that he’s obsessed with something as relatively innocent as dirt bikes, yet dismayed that he’s obsessed with something as meaningless as dirt bikes.
As Pug poignantly declares, though, his fate is already sealed in Baltimore, so why worry about the future or his education when another day isn’t guaranteed and today can be spent popping wheelies? In one of several moments that demonstrate his maturity, Pug explains why riding is more than just a hobby for the riders: “They’re free. They get on that bike, they feel powerful. Whatever’s going on their life, it’s gone. They can escape.” Many of the 12 O’Clock Boys echo this philosophy, even Steven, one of the founding members of the movement (it’s more than just one club or group) who has retired from riding but offers support by keeping a lookout for the police, who are directed not to give chase and therefore track riders by helicopter and swarm in for arrests. This strategy creates chaotic stand-offs in the street that approach a level of comedy, with nimble dirt bikes buzzing around hapless police cars. It’s no joke to the riders, however, who are vehemently distrustful and antagonistic to the police, accusing them of defying their no-chase mandate and causing fatal accidents from bikers who try to speed away.
What the criminal charges are for this activity, other than reckless endangerment, are never made very clear in the film in the first place, and it’s one of several areas that Nathan could spend more time examining. We understand that dirt bikes provide a mental escape for the neighborhood, but we don’t really understand the neighborhood. What are the economic and social factors keeping people down? We see Pug lose his boyish charm and become a surly teenager, but we don’t know if he is the exception or the rule in the neighborhood or among the riders. Is the dirt bike “scourge” just media hype, or is this something that is significantly affecting quality of life in Baltimore (in which case the city has far fewer problems than I thought)? It eventually becomes clear that 12 O’Clock Boys is meant to be about innocence lost and opportunity wasted in Baltimore, but the relationship between the culture of the city, the nature of youth development, and dirt bike riding as an activity—versus, say, skateboarding or being a graffiti artist—is tenuous at best with the evidence presented.
If Nathan wanted to create a film about a unique aspect of regional African-American culture, he could have modeled it after Rize (2005), David LaChapelle’s colorful documentary about krumping in Los Angeles. If he wanted to create a film about the plight of boys in inner-city Baltimore, he could have modeled it as a follow-up to The Boys of Baraka (2005), the excellent documentary that launched the filmmaking career of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. But as it is, 12 O’Clock Boys tries to do both, and, in biting off more than it has time to chew, offers few new or meaningful insights that couldn’t be gleaned from, well, The Wire. As a documentarian Nathan demonstrates a strong cinematic eye and a genuine respect for his subjects, so I hope his next project will be a little more focused and a little less ambitious.