12 O'Clock Boys opens with the footage of a group of young black men waiting in the back of a van. Over this image, we hear the voice of a person (If I had to bet, I'd say Caucasian), either a right wing radio host or a caller to such a program. He rages on about these kids, "These black kids, I know no one wants to bring up their race" (How brave of you to say that behind a phone). He claims that these kids are dangerous and a scourge on society. He finishes by saying "I don't care if they're harmed. In fact, I don't care if they're all killed."
So what are these kids getting ready to do, waiting inside that van? Are they going to indiscriminately murder innocent women and children? Are they on their way to pillage and rape the entire neighborhood? Or are they waiting to ride their dirt bikes in the area to let off some steam? If you answered option three, congratulations, you're fully aware of the inherent ugliness of the racism in our society.
12 O'Clock Boys is an excellent, fly on the wall-style documentary that follows a group of predominantly African-American dirt bike riders in Baltimore, a.k.a. that place you saw watching The Wire in your ivy league dorm room while swearing to yourself that you will never see it in person.
Apparently, dirt bike riding is a pretty important piece of Baltimore's culture. The kids from the more impoverished areas of the city love it so much, that it's not uncommon to see fifty to a hundred riders on the streets at one time.
It is officially illegal and to be fair, can be very dangerous. Although I have to admit that after watching the footage it seems more dangerous to the rider (Since almost none of them wear helmets) than anyone else. Either way, director Lotfy Nathan doesn't shy away from showing news footage where some innocent citizens were hurt.
Yes, dirt bike riding in the city might be a dangerous pastime, but the reaction from the authorities is ridiculously unbalanced. Anytime a group ride is happening, the police force goes all out with almost a military-level response, complete with a couple of helicopters to pin down the so-called violators. Do you think if these were well-to-do rich kids drag racing in Bel-Air, the police would spend as much tax payer funds on apprehending them?
Of course this is a class problem as well as a race problem, and I have proof. While I was earning my BA in Istanbul, I lived near a rich neighborhood where the children of wealthy parents organized illegal street racing that killed at least a couple of people every month. Did the police go after them with guns blazing? Did any of them see any jail time? What do you think?
The film follows three years in the life of Pug, a kid who idolizes dirt bikes and wants to become a rider himself. He wants to be a 12 O'Clock Boy, which refers to lifting the front of the bike all the way to the sky, like the hand of a clock pointing to 12. He's a smart kid, intuitive, and we understand that his mother does everything she can to raise him right, even after losing a son.
But the frustration inside Pug upon constantly being treated like a thug, even while trying to do something as innocent as riding a bike, takes its toll and he gradually builds a shell around him to look less vulnerable and more tough and proudly ignorant.
Even though we get the feeling that director Nathan cares about his subjects, he shows a remarkable amount of objectivism for a newcomer. His camera doesn't judge or reward, it just documents the day-to-day lives of its subjects.
If all you care about is seeing some sweet footage of dirt bike riding, you've come to the wrong place. You get some of that, but the point is to use this culture as a leeway into the lives and minds of Pug, his friends and his family, in an attempt to perhaps instill some empathy into the viewer.
12 O'Clock Boys is also available on Blu-Ray and you probably need to see it on that format. The DVD gets the job done upconverted on a relatively small HDTV but the various slow-motion shots of the rides need to be experienced in HD. Otherwise, as a DVD, it's a beautiful and crisp transfer.
There are two options, 2.0 Stereo or 5.1 Dolby Digital. Keep in mind that the disc defaults to the stereo track so you'll have to change it through the menu. The stereo track sounds perfectly fine through TV speakers, the mix between talking and music that plays during the ride sequences show considerable depth. The 5.1 track unsurprisingly really kicks in during the slow-motion riding footage where the excellent score presents itself fully.
Video Commentary: This is not a feature commentary, but about thirty minutes worth of footage where the director talks over his favorite scenes. Very enlightening, especially when he talks about how he gained Pug and his family's trust.
Outtakes: Four deleted scenes clocking in around ten minutes in total. Nothing really interesting apart from an amusing sequence showing Pug getting some grills on his teeth.
"Bad Bitches Drop It Low": A 3-minute music video full of GoPro footage of riders doing their thing. This is the kind of video I meant when I mentioned seeing some sweet footage of the rides.
A Theatrical Trailer is also included, as well as some previews for documentaries from Oscilloscope, the company that released this DVD.
Especially during these days of racial turmoil, 12 O'Clock Boys is an important documentary to check out if you would like to gain some empathy on people living below the poverty line. The impressive slow-motion dirt bike footage doesn't hurt either.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com