Easy Riders: '12 O'Clock Boys' Profiles a Wild Baltimore Subculture
By Josh Slates
12 O' Clock Boys is an unapologetically compelling and uniquely empathetic portrait of dirt bike culture in contemporary Baltimore. If you've never visited Charm City, or if you've never ventured into the urban hinterlands that lie beyond its rejuvenated harbor shopping district, you might not be familiar with this unique phenomenon. During the summer months, it is not uncommon to hear the ominous roar of small engines in the distance or to glimpse firsthand packs of dirt bikes and modified all-terrain vehicles navigating street traffic by the dozens.
Lotfy Nathan, the London-born and Boston-raised director of 12 O'Clock Boys, was attending the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2008 and found himself mulling over his choice of subject matter for an undergraduate documentary class project. "I was living on Biddle Street," Nathan recounts, "and I just saw a bunch of those guys tear by on their bikes and I thought, 'Wow. What the hell was that?'"
It is illegal to own dirt bikes in Baltimore, but that has done little to diminish their presence on city streets. The Baltimore City Police Department is forbidden from pursuing dirt bikes with cruisers in the interest of safety, and must instead rely on helicopter surveillance to track and seize them, giving law enforcement a lopsided disadvantage. In recent years, dirt bike culture in Baltimore has grown to such proportions that local government finds itself struggling to devise new and unique ways to discourage it, such as the passage of a law prohibiting gas stations from selling gasoline to anyone on a dirt bike.
"Dirt biking has been a huge problem in the city," Baltimore City Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun in 2012. "They essentially terrorize motorists and residents, and we're very strategic in how we approach the problem."
Nathan's curiosity first led him to YouTube, where he marveled at the bravado and dexterity of the Wowboyz, a group of local Baltimore stunt riders who document their audacious cycling feats with consumer video equipment. "I thought it would be interesting to follow them somehow," he says. "I asked around and found that they congregated at Druid Hill Park. I did approach them—very warily—and then found that they were really into being filmed and they wanted to share their stories. Then I was off to the races."
12 O'Clock Boys introduces us to this insular subculture through the eyes of another intrigued outlier: a 13-year old dirt bike enthusiast named Pug, whose abundant passion for joy-wheeling is evident from the moment he first graces the screen. "I was introduced to Pug by a guy named Shank," Nathan recalls. Pug's dream in life is to join the ranks of the local stunt riding legends he idolizes: Wheelie Wayne, Superman and the 12 O'Clock Boyz, a group of riders who earned their moniker by executing perilous wheelies that send their front tires pivoting up to high noon. We also meet Pug's mother, Coco, an aspiring reality television star who struggles with single parenthood after relocating her family to East Baltimore in the wake of the tragic death of Pug's older brother.
As Nathan wrestled with expanding a student documentary project into a cohesive and accessible feature, he began gravitating toward Pug and Coco more and more as subjects and surrogates for viewers unfamiliar with the recesses of this idiosyncratic underworld. Filmmaker Eric Blair also joined the project as a producer and supervised a unit of show-stopping slow-motion Phantom cinematography that scrutinizes every nuanced affectation of Pug and his dirt bike brethren at speeds of up to 800 frames per second.
"Everything took on a more lyrical, meditative and mature tone," Blair explains. "The riders move fast. Life in Baltimore City is fast. The Phantom footage changed that and allowed for the story to pause a little and breathe a lot. Drastically slowing down even a small amount of movement such as the tilt of someone's head, the blink of someone's eyes, or when Pug smiles and shows his new gold teeth, seemed like fresh territory to explore with the technology. It just seemed perfect for this story."
Blair's Phantom HD Gold camera package was outfitted with an 18-50mm T3 Red lens, a set of Standard Zeiss Primes T2.1 and an Angénieux 25-250mm HR T3.5. "We usually shot at 250 ISO, which is a good sweet spot for the camera, especially if you want to pan and scan later," Blair reasons.
The production team also came to have a tentative relationship with local city government in the course of their efforts to document illegal dirt bike activity on Baltimore streets. Nathan even recalls being served a summons during principal photography for filming an unlawful act, although the charge would later come to be dismissed.
"The riders were going to ride regardless of our documentation, and I was often conflicted about documenting everything," Blair confides. "But it's a uniquely Baltimore phenomenon and a story that just needed to be told properly. I felt no differently about our documentation than what David Simon had done with both his books Homicide: Life on The Street and The Corner. I'm glad we achieved what we did and I'm glad we won't ever have to do it again."
Despite criticism from some quarters that 12 O'Clock Boys glorifies its subjects and their death-defying antics, the documentary is even-handed enough to depict the occasionally deadly consequences of stunt cycling on city streets. A recollection of the untimely demise of Marvin Watts, a young cycling protégé under the tutelage of Superman who was killed in 1999 when his dirt bike collided with a sedan, counterbalances the plentiful on-screen mayhem with a cautious weight.
For Nathan and his collaborators, presenting 12 O'Clock Boys at the Maryland Film Festival in May 2013 with many of its titular daredevils in attendance was a particular highlight. "I think it blew all of our minds seeing it on the big screen," Nathan enthuses. "There was a lot of buildup to that screening and I think it was great. For the riders who saw it, I hope they see it as a testament to the group."
"The Baltimore screenings we knew would be unique and unlike screenings anywhere else in the world," Blair agrees. "Some people may have had a bike stolen, some may have been scared by the noise and the disruption the pack of riders can cause. Everyone, however, seemed to find common ground in Pug's story. It was an incredible screening and more than what I could have hoped for."
12 O' Clock Boys opens nationally in theaters January 31 through Oscilloscope Pictures. In addition, the Maryland Institute College of Art, Nathan's alma mater, will be hosting a homecoming screening of 12 O'Clock Boys in Baltimore at the Brown Center's Falvey Hall on January 31, with the filmmaker and several other guests in attendance.
Josh Slates is an independent producer and director based in Baltimore. His feature-length debut, Small Pond, is now available on iTunes, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video. He is also a film critic and field producer for The Signal, a weekly arts and culture program produced by WYPR Radio.