Movie Review - 12 O'Clock Boys (Black History Month)

Lotfy Nathan is a 20-something, white male who came to Baltimore to study fine arts and become a painter. While there he noticed this group of young black males riding motorcycles and All-Terrain-Vehicles or ATVs through the streets constantly. These riders call themselves the 12 O'Clock Boyz because they like to ride those cycles as if in the 12 o'clock position. In other words, they like to "pop wheelies" as it's sometimes called. These 12 O'Clock Boyz had already made themselves YouTube stars. Their videos got millions of views. The problem is their motorcycles aren't licensed or registered street bikes. They're instead riding dirt-bikes and ATVs, which aren't legal to drive through the streets of Baltimore. This doesn't stop the riders, despite the injuries and even deaths that have resulted.

Nathan's documentary follows a 12-year-old, African-American boy nicknamed Pug who wants nothing more than to join the 12 O'Clock Boyz, which has existed prior to Pug's birth and has grown into a kind of gang of hundreds. According to older members of the 12 O'Clock Boyz, its activities curtail gang-related violence and provides a positive outlet for young blacks in Baltimore that don't have many opportunities. Yet, police have to try to regulate and stop it because it is illegal and it has resulted in grave harm. Thus, there's constant conflict and tension surrounding the bikers.

Talking to the 12 O'Clock Boyz though, it's clear that they despise the police. A particular case in 1999 involving a former Baltimore police officer named Albert Lemon is a perfect example of the divide and distrust between the riders and the cops. Even though Nathan's camera remains entrenched with the riders and mainly tells this story from their points of view, he doesn't vilify or come down on the police as the riders do.

Nathan follows Coco, the single mother of Pug, as well as spotlights other women and young girls in the neighborhood who aren't all that impressed with the biker boys. Nathan's film shows a clear separation on the issue by race in a powerful opening sequence, involving the racist overtones in a radio broadcast, but Nathan also shows the separation on the issue by gender. None of the women depicted here, all of them black, approve of the bikers, particularly Pug's love of the bikers.

Pug is by far the star of this movie. Nathan follows him for three years starting in 2010, and what we get is a great and very well-rounded portrait of this young man that is not always pretty. It's honest and raw and almost unflinching. We get that Pug is smart yet truant in school. He cares about his siblings and animals but has a violent streak. He aspires to be a veterinarian but realizes due to the realities of young black men in Baltimore that he might not live long enough to become one.

However, by the end, Nathan does something very interesting if not disturbing. He makes Pug appear sympathetic and criminal using the same footage and some slight editing and context changes. The closing shot is a continuation of the first shot. At first, I wasn't sure if it were a flashback or a flash-forward. It revolves around Pug's dirt-bike and how he got it or rather how he got it back. With no narration or commentary from Nathan at all, he ends the movie with two conflicting ideas about Pug, leaving the audience to decide who Pug really is. It's actually rather brilliant.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 16 mins.


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