12 O'Clock Boys
Directed by Lotfy Nathan
Opens Jan. 31 at AMC Owings Mills
The Sunday Drive has long been a thing of the past, but in Baltimore a group both celebrated and reviled has revived it. For dirt-bikers, good weather on a Sunday signals a riding day, a day spent in the pack cruising through the city, feeling free, attracting the attention of adults and children impressed by speed and daring feats. It also often draws the attention of police. Residents along Route 40 or near Druid Hill Park or North Avenue (and drivers everywhere) recognize the distinctive, high-pitched buzz of a dirt-bike engine, and its drone might cause some drivers to slow down and be cautious when approaching green lights (red lights are frequently, though not uniformly, disregarded). The routine Sunday ride, while a thrilling pleasure for many, grates on others' nerves. Lotfy Nathan examines this duality of the dirt-biking subculture in 12 O'Clock Boys: the dangerous practices that rouse the ire of motorists, residents, and the police, and the communal activity that offers the membership and a sense of escape to aspiring riders. (The film was prominently featured in the 2013 Maryland Film Festival; see "It's 12 O'Clock in Baltimore," Feature, May 8, 2013.)
Nathan, who studied painting at MICA, spent three years filming Baltimore's dirt-bikers and a 13-year-old boy who jumps up and down on the sidewalk with excitement and envy every time the riders buzz past him, a boy who longs to ride with the pack. In that time, Nathan amassed enough footage to present a multi-dimensional portrait of dirt-biking culture, as well as the young adulthood of a black male in Baltimore.
While this boy, Pug, remains the focus of the film, Nathan captures the nitty-gritty of the dirt-biking subculture: He frequently rides with Steven, a former biker who now provides street support (via a van) to the 12 O'Clock Boys-named for the 90-degree angle the bikers aim for, their front wheels pointed skyward. Nathan also interviews various adult riders in the film, including Superman and Wheelie Wayne, two founders of the scene. These older riders began filming their stunts at some point, and eventually the videos were posted to YouTube, which established a name for the 12 O'Clock Boys that extends far beyond Baltimore, getting comments from viewers in New Zealand and Japan.
But nowhere is the zeal for the bikers felt more palpably than on the sidewalks of Baltimore, where kids and adults alike line the curb, using tablets and phone cameras to film the riders as they zip past. Children ooze admiration for the riders, mimicking the sound their bikes make, hanging around the crews in parks before rides. The bikers become idols. Nathan skillfully plays on this, using an ultra high-speed camera that allows him to smoothly stretch out five seconds of riding into a glossy 30-second or longer segment. The elongated shot lets the viewer take it all in: the easy pose of the rider as he rears back on his bike, his muscles pulled taut, a smile stretching across his face. He might take one hand off the handlebar and wave or point with it. It's beautiful, graceful, elegant.
But anyone who's had a dirt bike fly by them in their car knows that it's not so glorious when you're on or near the street. And Nathan shows this too, filming one rider approaching a police car so close that he can touch it-which he does, kicking the side before zooming away. Nathan couldn't get any official police participation in the film, it seems; the one interview he manages to scrounge up is with a former Baltimore City cop who inadvertently (or perhaps not) killed a biker in a debatable chase. But it's plain that the antagonism between the bikers and the cops may not be entirely one-sided: In one scene, someone videotapes police beating a man who fell off his bike in the street.
The film is neither a wholehearted endorsement of the culture nor is it a scathing critique of its perils. Nathan records everything without injecting a judgmental tone, and he's especially delicate when it comes to Pug and his mother, Coco. While Coco often appears cross and impatient with Pug (who proves increasingly hard to handle), she also tries to encourage his interest in animals by providing him with various pets. Pug is always clad in Polo Ralph Lauren shirts and hats. He eventually gets a dirt bike of his own, with her assistance, we glean. But it's clear that there's something else Pug needs that Coco can't provide, and Nathan succeeds in eliciting some sympathy for her.
As the three years elapse, we watch Pug's tightly braided hair grow longer and longer down his back. His vocabulary expands and acquires a more abrasive tone. He gets suspended from school for beating a kid up in class. By the film's end, he's shed some of the sweet charm he had in the beginning; his bravado takes on a quality that makes Steven, one of the 12 O'Clock Boys, comment, "One person trying to raise a motherfucker like that, it's a lot."
Nathan closes the film on a cliffhanger, and for a movie that's just as much about the young adolescence of an African-American male in Baltimore as it about the dirt-biking subculture here, that's a fitting place to leave it.
MICA screens 12 O'Clock Boys on Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m. in Falvey Hall. A Q&A with Lotfy Nathan will follow. For more information, visit 12oclockboys.com.