Harsh Texture

12 O'Clock Boys

A young boy strives to be accepted among Baltimore's popular underground dirt bike circuit

Baltimore nurtured a love of dirt bikes since the late nineties. They called themselves the 12 O’Clock Boyz, so named for the trick that surpassed the wheely by raising the front wheel until the bike rides perpendicular to the road below. Bootleg videotapes circulated in the poor black communities. Popularity built up in the ensuing years, as videos of the riders’ exploits proved popular among Youtube’s global audience.

What started as a handful of riders ballooned into dozens, a pack of young men riding through the streets en masse. When 12 O’Clock Boys opens the pack has grown increasingly brazen. Once only riding in side streets in the fringes of the city, now they roll through the tourist districts with abandon. Blocking traffic, riding on pedestrian sidewalks.  

The police response escalates into a war of wills. It’s clear that chasing the bikers is more dangerous than leaving them alone on the streets, and the department espouses a strict “no chase policy”. But things don’t always go so smoothly. Despite their decree, the police will directly engage with bikers, chasing them in high speed pursuit through city streets and endangering everyone.  

Meanwhile despite their words to the contrary, many of the bikers get off on confronting the authorities and enjoy the strength of their numbers. The film captures acts of brazen provocation. Bikers directly challenging police cruisers, kicking the cars as they zip by.  

Coming of age at this time, the pint sized Pug looks on the traveling pack with pure idolatry.  In a community with a shortage of positive role models, the 12 O’Clock Boys represent an ideal for a good kid. They’re non violent; being in the pack marks you as a neutral party separate from the petty gang warfare that sparks off in all corners of the city. When they ride past, residents come out of their houses to wave them on.

When Pug’s even-keeled older brother dies suddenly, his family falls into disarray and his desire to join the pack transforms into a coping mechanism.

While billed as a continuation of the Wire, The 12 O’Clock Boys really aligns itself with Style Wars. That documentary focused on the culture burgeoning around hip hop, with a primary focus on the graffiti artists and whether they should be embraced as cultural heroes or prosecuted as vandals. Ultimately New York City chose the latter, at least with subway trains.  

12 O’Clock Boys sees a similar culture emerging in the dirt bike culture of Baltimore. These are performers of skill and craft, even finding growing appreciation outside of their home city with offers to appear at biking events over the world.

The film itself doesn’t improve much on its hazy waking-dream of a trailer but still provides a valuable portrait of life in low class Baltimore.  David Simon said “The Wire” was in many ways a focus on a forgotten people shut out from mainstream America. 12 O’Clock Boys expands on this concept but outside of the drug trade.  

Unfortunately, modern inner city life is often documented through the context of either the drug trade or welfare services. These are very narrow lens by which to summarize the lives of millions of people, and it leaves the impression that city life for blacks is either some mix of dealing or living off government assistance. Through the trust and generosity of Pug’s family, 12 O’Clock Boys is able to carve out a well rounded portrait of life on the fringe of society. For that reason it may be more valuable as an anthropological record than anything.

Published: Sept. 6, 2016, 11:05 p.m.
Updated: Sept. 6, 2016, 11:05 p.m.