The black screen breaks, and Pug’s brown face appears, slim and unfazed, his cornrows hidden behind a black baseball hat cocked backward, his black T-shirt drunk around the neck. His eyes say: “I have seen more than my decade of life.”
A nameless radio voice comes in offscreen like a low rumble. “I want to know what we are doing about these little scumbags on dirt bikes in our downtown … I mean these kids are just little bastards … and the problem is—and I’m going to throw it out there—they’re African-American … I don’t care if they get hurt,” the man’s voice says, now revved up high. He pops the clutch:
“Frankly, I don’t care if one of them dies.”
This is how 12 O’Clock Boys—an unflinching, hard-hitting look at a loose-knit family of illegal dirt bike riders on the streets of Baltimore—begins with a brown face and an omnipotent voice that has little tolerance for these loud bikes or this life or this lawless culture of expression. The voice doesn’t seek to understand or attempt to figure out. The voice just wants them gone.
Fade to black.
Baltimore is so violent and elusive that even its murderous nickname has a murderous nickname. Bloodymore—aka Bulletmore, aka Bodymore, aka Bodymorgue—is the birthplace of Pug, a 13-year-old who longs one day to ride in the “pack” with the 12 O’Clock Boys. They’re called the 12 O’Clock Boys “’cause they pull the bike straight back,” like the hands on the clock. When the bike is completely vertical, as Pug says, “you the s–t.” They do this at high speeds with no helmet, making every move deadly.
Enter director Lotfy Nathan, who first arrived on the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Baltimore campus to study art. A documentary-film assignment, and a willingness to engage the young men instead of making assumptions about them, spawned the project.
“I was living in a bubble on the college campus, but I had seen them a few times riding around. I just walked around and started asking people about them, and everyone knew who I was talking about; everyone had a story,” says Nathan.
He heard that they met at Druid Hill Park on Sundays, and when he went there, he saw a few guys standing around a bike on a baseball diamond. He approached them cautiously because he, too, had heard the stories describing them as thugs, drug dealers and a gang. But “they were really receptive,” he said. “We exchanged numbers.”
For Nathan, the process of making the film—opening today in theaters and on video-on-demand—was just as organic and chaotic as the pack’s rides. There was the task of finding the riders, approaching them, shooting footage, borrowing cars, borrowing friends to shoot footage, borrowing cameras, shooting more footage, along with two Kickstarter campaigns and a chance YouTube encounter.