Louis C.K. had a bit in a recent stand up special called “Of course… But Maybe…” For example: “Of course, children who have nut allergies need to be protected... But maybe if touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die.” The purpose of the bit was to allow him to say mean spirited things in a way that acknowledged how wrong they were, making it okay for the audience to laugh.
As I was watching 12 O’clock Boys I was playing “of course… but maybe…” in my head, but not because this film reminded me of Louis C.K.’s stand-up. In fact, this documentary about some struggling people in Baltimore’s ghetto is rather serious, since it directly addresses troubling class and race issues. No, I was thinking about “of course… but maybe…” because the movie does such a good job of balancing out differing perspectives that I kept finding myself agreeing with whomever was talking - but then immediately tagging that thought with an asterisk when the next person explained their contradictory viewpoint.
The 12 O’clock Boys are a group of dirt bike riders who form a loose knit gang. Their big thing is going on parade down Baltimore’s streets on Sundays, which is illegal, and most of their parades are interrupted by the police. The 12 O’clock Boys don't see themselves as outlaws: they argue that it’s better for a street kid to get into dirt bikes than drugs, and that they build up positive communities in the ghetto. It's a valid point: the film focuses on a pre-teen boy who goes by Pug, and at least in the early going you can see how Pug’s getting good support from the other dirt bike riders, who are encouraging him to keep working hard at becoming a better rider.
However, the police aren’t cracking down on the 12 O’clock Boys because they’re against parades – it’s because the type of stunt riding that the 12 O’clock Boys specialize in can be dangerous for pedestrians, other drivers and even the dirt bike riders themselves. The name "12 O’clock Boys" refers to their habit of trying to ride their bikes completely vertically, with their wheels being aligned like the hands of a clock at noon, and there have been times when a rider was doing something risky like that and lost control of their bike. Sometimes that only hurts the rider, but sometimes it hits an innocent bystander. There have been fatalities - although the 12 O'Clock Boys argue that more fatalities have been caused by being chased by the police than by their stunt riding.
Of course the 12 O’clock Boys are better than the drug gangs. But maybe they aren't the community saviors they paint themselves to be – in the three years they were filming Pug, the documentarians watched him grow from a sweet natured kid into a kid who was barely going to school and who was stealing dirt bikes in the middle of the night. Of course Pug's bad decisions are on him and not the entire group, but maybe the 12 O'clock Boys really are doing a bad thing when they foster an atmosphere of reckless disrespect for the law.
Of course the police are at fault when they turn an innocent joyride into a dangerous situation by initiating an unnecessary chase. But maybe they aren’t persecuting the 12 O’clock Boys because they’re racist and they want to hassle the (mostly African American) riders. Maybe they really are trying to enforce sensible traffic laws because high speed trick riding in the heart of a major city’s downtown really is dangerous for the larger community.
Of course, the racist element can't be completely discounted: the film opens with a snippet from a local radio show where the host rails against the 12 O'clock boys and keeps stressing the fact that most of them are African American. But maybe there is a middle ground where the cops are racists and heroes and the 12 O'clock Boys are a solid communal support system and out of control lawbreakers.
This is a documentary that poses a lot of questions, questions that are especially timely given the debates we’ve had about the role of law enforcement all year long. Unfortunately, these questions don't have any easy answers. Of course, it's good that the movie explores it's subject with nuance and doesn't offer any reductive solutions. But maybe my it's also clear why that's so frustrating: the conflicts 12 O'Clock Boys is observing aren't going to be resolved any time soon and that's depressing. Of course, that's just the way life is. But maybe...