READY FOR THEIR CLOSEUP

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He got to the party a little late, but when Richard Keyser slipped through the glass doors of the Charles Theatre last night and into a swelling crowd, his entrance was that of a star.

A dozen flash bulbs went off, catching the 16-year-old in a fusillade of lights. The co-directors of The Boys of Baraka, whose local premiere would begin in two hours, bounded over, threw their arms around him and gushed like den mothers. And as reporters appeared, flipped open their notebooks, and got ready to scrawl his words, he spotted his friend and film co-star, Montrey Moore, and sidled up to him.

A mere 5-foot-5, he glanced up at the 6-foot-3 Montrey, a high school sophomore who has grown 7 inches since the film was completed two years ago, and delivered the kind of line that made The Boys of Baraka, a documentary about four Baltimore boys' journey to a tiny boarding school in Africa, the talk of the film-festival circuit last year.

"He makes me feel small," said Richard with a shrug, "but that doesn't mean I don't still live large."

Last night, they all did: Richard and "Trey," both 16 and good friends since their journey to Africa; co-star Devon Brown, also 16, now a high school sophomore; the film's directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady of New York; Judge Katie Curran O'Malley, the wife of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who was on hand to introduce the film; and about 100 well-wishers, schoolmates, mothers, pastors, cousins and friends, all invited to the Baltimore equivalent of red-carpet hour on Oscar night. (Romesh Vance, Richard's brother and the film's fourth star, didn't make the bash.)

"This is a moment I'll always cherish," said Vera Holley, the principal at William H. Lemmel Middle School and a woman who has known the boys, especially Richard, for years. "Each of these children has a special character, so unique. They deserve this attention."

Last night, they soaked it up. Devon, an aspiring preacher, was a natural before TV cameras, his white sweater and jewel-encrusted cross necklace all but glowing under the lights. "There will always be obstacles in the way," said Devon in the first of many interviews, "but one thing I've learned is that if you put God first, he'll lead you to higher ground and success."

Montrey, in a green Jolly Green Giant T-shirt, said he loved the attention, if only because his friends at school "still think I'm lying about being in a movie. I'm bringing 20 or 25 of them on Friday," he said, when The Boys of Baraka begins its exclusive Charles Theatre run, the same day it opens in more than 20 cities nationwide.

"I feel happy on the inside when people recognize me," Richard said as cameras rolled. "They see me on the news or see my picture in the paper, and it's great. They want to know my opinions. I like the fame. I want to be the next - me."

It can be hard work being in the spotlight. It took Latoya Brown, Devon's best friend, two hours to braid his hair the night before - "he was screaming and hollering" in pain, she said, "but he had to have it done" - and Grady and Ewing were still busy telling the boys why Baraka, which bagged five major awards on the 2005 film-festival circuit, didn't quite get the Oscar nomination they were hoping for. (It did make the short list of 15, but it lost out to the likes of March of the Penguins and Murderball.)

But Richard and Devon were putting on the sort of brave face that befits young men who have survived a year among lions, lizards and zebras, not to mention exacting teachers like the ones at Baraka, the Baltimore charter school that operated in Kenya from 1996 to 2003, and the setting for about half the movie.

"I'm not mad," said Richard, whose poetic bent is one of the film's most moving qualities. "Something's better than nothing."

Just feet away, another person portrayed in the film, Mavis Jackson, knows what he means. An educational counselor in the city schools, she spent four years deciding which boys would be accepted to the Baraka program. "Sometimes I see people I didn't accept on the news," she said, "and not in a good way. It breaks my heart. But these boys - the experience has given them a chance."

Katie O'Malley, clutching the notes for her later talk, was marveling at the thought of 12-year-olds who'd dare to live so far from home. "I can't get my 8-year-old to spend the night at a friend's house," she said with a laugh. "Amazing people."

Behind her, Richard, now enrolled in the Maryland Job Corps program in Woodstock, fielded a few more questions in front of the microphones. Yes, he's glad that hundreds of school kids, here in Baltimore and across the country, will get to see The Boys of Baraka in the next few weeks. Sure, he thinks it'll help them a bit. "They can learn something, seeing boys become men, seeing fights become friendship," he said.

Then it was time - to head for the theater, to see the film one more time, maybe to take a few more bows and answer some questions.

Richard held up his hands to fend off the crowd. "That's a wrap," he said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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