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.
"I went on YouTube and saw some footage and reached out to Steven and his brother Kevin," Nathan said. "We met at a car wash in East Baltimore. He agreed to take me around, and from there it just took off."
Steven, 37, who doesn't want to give his last name, became a dirt bike addict when he first saw a kid from the neighborhood with his mother, riding a dirt bike with training wheels. "I saw this thing that looked like a toy, but it was real and I could put gas in it and ride it," he says. "I was addicted."
With Steven as his guide, Nathan's entry into the world blossomed. The footage got more intense as he was able to keep up with the riders with Steven at the wheel. He's a well-respected O.G. in Baltimore bike culture.
"I completely trusted Steven. The high-octane situations of filming the pack were all under Steven's protection," Nathan said. "He really has that paternal instinct."
This isn't a documentary that spends its energy trying to find those who condemn the riders. Footage isn't wasted on cops saying it's wrong—even the riders will tell you it isn't legal or safe—but there is something about the ability to get yours, to take what is left and ride with that. "We tried to ride off-road, but cops would ticket our cars or tow us. We got tired of driving all the way out of the city, only to be treated like s—t, so we were like, 'F—k it,' and took it to the streets."
The riding is a flamboyant display of aliveness in a city that feels like death—boasting high murder rates that compete with other metro areas for the dubious title of "most dangerous city." But there is a sense of pride in the pack: a togetherness that feels bigger than the bikes or the tricks or the getting away from the cops. It is a bond that says, somehow, we made it despite the hardship. We made it, and we are going to ride that out, good or bad, 'til the wheels fall off.
"There is a freedom that comes with being able to leave all this s—t behind," Steven says.
Steven knows Pug well because he was him when he was that age—a young boy at a crossroads in his life. Pug's puffed-up bravado and language read like someone who has been through too much for his age. His hard-charging riding is fitting for the side of him that is unafraid to pop wheelies on a ride.
"Every city has a Pug," Steven says. "Every hood has a Pug. This is what the ghetto produces … hostile environments, anger, stress, depression … you're going to have a negative outcome. It's a recipe. To jump on a dirt bike and leave all that s—t behind with first gear, second gear, third gear. Yeah, we gonna ride."
And then there's the side that only Pug's mother, CoCo, seems to see and foster. It's a pure child side that approaches animals with a tenderness that almost feels more authentic than his bike-riding self. So the same hand that revs the throttle is gentle when petting his dogs' puppies, or when he unhooks a fish from his line, or when he's talking about his turtle. Pug dreams of being a veterinarian, but the hood sees him as one of bike riding's next legends.
Pug finds only a sense of freedom in being one of them. Over a slow-moving montage of riders, Pug's voice breaks in like a dream. "They are free," he says. "They get on that bike, they feel powerful. Whatever's going on in their life, it's all gone, it can escape … and ride."
This is what a rugged city does to a kid. It doesn't take his dreams seriously; doesn't ground them in scripture and push them up higher than the soil. It holds them down like weeds until eventually they grow together like a hybrid flower, and in the end they are not beautiful anymore. He will not want that dream, because a place that finds a sense of pride in violence doesn't want them for him. So the dream runs from the dreamer the way the riders run from the cops and the clutch gets popped—just enough to get the front wheel off the ground.
Give it enough gas and you're doing it. Lean back far enough and you teeter right on the edge of Desperation Boulevard and Destruction Avenue. And that feels like every block in every hood that the world forgot.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.