REVIEW: 12 O’Clock Boys

Directed by Lotfy Nathan
Starring: Pug, Coco, Tibba, Steven

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

This doc, a feature debut by British-born Lotfy Nathan, about African-Americans racing dirt bikes in the streets of Baltimore and performing dangerous wheelies (pulling their bikes back 180 degrees so they resemble noon on the clock), premiered at the prestigious Indie American festival South by South-west. Hot Docs launched it in Canada last spring to great acclaim. Now, after time sorting out finances, 12 O’Clock Boys is being released commercially in select theatres across North America.

Nathan follows Pug, a young, charming and attractive African-American from grade school to middle school (2010-13) in the ghettos of Baltimore. Pug’s mother Coco, a former exotic dancer, is feisty, funny and absolutely determined to raise her kids right. When Tibba, her oldest, dies after an asthma attack, she decides to move Pug and the rest of her family to a better part of town.

But Coco doesn’t have enough money to move into a district that’s different from the one she left. Pug, a bright-eyed lad, remains obsessed with dirt bikes, just as he was when they lived in their old neighbourhood. Nathan follows Pug over three years as he gets bigger and becomes proficient at wheelies.

Through news reports and interviews with police officers, it becomes clear that Pug’s heroes, the 12 O’Clock Boys, are considered to be irresponsible and dangerous. Their stylish, athletic rides (captured brilliantly by Nathan and his cinematographers) are illegal—young pedestrians have been hurt or killed when the dirt bikers were threatened and had to quickly escape armed and speedy police officers.

Over the course of the film, Pug remains obsessed with biking. He practices his wheelies and gradually convinces members of the 12 O’Clock team to accept as him into the Club as a potentially excellent young rider.

But Pug neglects school. His childhood dream of being a veterinarian won’t happen; you need good grades and a college education to do that. What will become of him?

12 O’Clock Boys is clearly a labour of love for Lotfy Nathan. The British-born director spent much of his art college days in Baltimore documenting Pug, his friends and the amazing dirt-bike culture of the town.

Nathan has followed in the footsteps of such great cinema verité directors as Fred Wiseman and Al Maysles. With persistence, friendliness and fine camera work, he has captured the reality of life for a young African-American living in Baltimore today.

Lotfy Nathan’s dedication and Pug’s charm makes 12 O’Clock Boys an exceptional experience. Filled with brilliant shots of young African-Americans gracefully performing wheelies in the streets of Baltimore, Nathan’s film is stylish and compassionate towards Pug, a charismatic young man, whose future is clearly in doubt.

This is a touching and moving documentary, worthy of attention and respect.