Filming the Scouts of Harlem
December 2, 2009 |  by Andrea Appleton

Jake Boritt, A&S ’98, and Justin Szlasa, A&S ’94

When Justin Szlasa and Jake Boritt first met a few years back—through a mutual friend and fellow Blue Jay—they immediately knew that they wanted to collaborate. Szlasa was looking to get out of Web design and into making films. Boritt, already a filmmaker, had just completed his first feature-length documentary (titled Budapest to Gettysburg, the film earned critical acclaim from the likes of Ken Burns) and was ready for a new project. Szlasa, an Eagle Scout, wanted to make a movie about the Boy Scouts. Boritt, a resident of Harlem, wanted to make a movie about his New York City neighborhood.

“I immediately loved the contrast of two iconic American institutions, Boy Scouts and Harlem,” says Boritt.

Their film, 759: Boy Scouts of Harlem, premiered in March at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem. It is the story of Troop 759, a group of four city kids and their two troop leaders, as they head off to summer camp. The troop defies common perceptions about the Boy Scouts—these are mostly black kids, from an inner-city neighborhood—but the film’s portrayal of Harlem is sometimes surprising as well. One troop member, nicknamed KC, is white. The Scoutmaster, Okpoti Sowah, is a Ghanaian immigrant with a master’s degree from Columbia University. And a couple of the boys come from longtime Scouting families.

“Hopefully it will change some people’s minds about both of the words in the title of our film: both about Harlem and about Scouts,” says Szlasa.

Despite the warm welcome Boritt and Szlasa received from Troop 759, it took a long time for the boys to become comfortable with the camera, the lavaliere microphones, and the constant attention. The pair spent 18 months with the troop, camping, attending Saturday meetings, and ultimately joining them at Camp Keowa, a summer Scout retreat on a lake in upstate New York. As a result, the boys in the film are remarkably vulnerable and open once they finally reach the woods. They voice fears about nighttime noises, comb each other’s hair, gossip about the “hot” Siberian girls working in the dining hall.

“We really became part of the troop,” says Szlasa. “That was the burden after we had the footage in the can. We felt tremendous responsibility to tell their story in a way that was honest and true and accurate.” The duo shot about 180 hours of footage, which they edited down to a compelling 70 minutes.

The film’s narrative arc is supplied by 11-year-old Keith Dozier, a summer camp greenhorn and a ham in front of the camera. He fails his first “dock test,” unable to swim even a few feet in Crystal Lake. Szlasa could relate; long ago, he failed his first dock test, too. “What I love about Keith is that he didn’t give up. He kept trying,” Szlasa says. In the film, Keith’s determined attempts to learn to swim are interspersed with scenes from Harlem and the camp, as well as interviews with the Scouts’ families and troop leaders.

The film made its Johns Hopkins premiere in November at a special screening sponsored by the Baltimore Chapter of the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association and is scheduled to be broadcast on PBS affiliates in the spring. Boritt and Szlasa are already talking about making another film together, perhaps a feature on the Peace Corps. “It’s an extraordinary program that is under­reported, like the Scouts,” says Szlasa. Or they may return to the subject of the Boy Scouts, this time focusing on Philmont Scout Ranch, a camp in New Mexico. This first experience left them wanting more. “I still want to go back to Camp Keowa and climb the wall and swim across the lake,” says Boritt. “It was like being a boy again.”