Director Marilyn Ness documents community heroes, concerned cops struggling against grim tide of violence
Last year the murder rate in Baltimore topped every other large city in America -- much higher per capita than Detroit, Chicago and New York. More than 340 people fell prey to homicide there in 2017.
Alex Long, a resident of East Baltimore, doesn't need FBI statistics to tell him how dangerous his hometown is.
"My youngest son, Joshua, going to school he witnessed 10 shootings. And seven of the shootings was homicides," Long told Nonfictionfilm.com. "In one of the situations he had to tackle a little girl to the ground so she wasn't a victim. And so when you think of it like that, it's almost like a nightmare."
Long is one of the central figures in the new documentary Charm City, directed by Marilyn Ness, a vérité-style film that brings home the desperate situation for residents of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods, where violent crime is endemic. Charm City recently earned a spot on the International Documentary Association's shortlist of the best documentaries of the year; it opened in L.A. today (October 19) at the Laemmle Music Hall and is playing at IFC Center in New York. It opens in more cities in the coming days and weeks.
The title comes from a nickname for Baltimore.
"It plays two ways in that town," Ness explained. "For white communities they call it 'Charm City,' and for communities of color they call it 'Harm City,' and so we made our 'C' flicker onscreen in the title."
Long and his mentor, Clayton "Mr. C" Guyton, who founded the Rose Street Community Center, are among the local heroes struggling to reduce violence, protect and uplift their neighbors and set kids on a path to a better future.
"Mr. C is social service. In this neighborhood that means a lot," Long commented. "It really showed me the greatness that one can have if you really step up to the challenge, so I love my city for that."
Ness uses graphics to underscore the systemic issues that have made Baltimore the city it is -- a long history of segregation and racial covenants that confined African-Americans to urban pockets lacking adequate transportation, quality schools and economic opportunities. But her focus is mostly at the ground level of lived experience. That includes members of the police department, both white and black, in a place where residents are, for understandable reasons, wary of police. Baltimore, after all, is where Freddie Gray was killed in 2015 while in the custody of police.
"We wanted to understand what wasn't working between police and citizens, but not just through the lens of that nightly news 30-second bite of some catastrophic moment of a death in police custody," Ness says. "But rather to understand the day-in and day-out of what it meant to live in a place as a police officer or as a citizen who felt excessively policed."
The film shows efforts, supported by city councilman Brandon Scott, to bring members of the community and officers together to foster a better understanding of each other as human beings.
"It really gave us the opportunity to remove all the extras and just look at the person for exactly that, the person," Long observed. "And once that happened, you can really start trying to work on the things that y'all had different, and the things that y'all had in common."
Added Ness, "If you need to fix a system, you need everyone caught in that system to be part of repairing it. But if you're just being screamed at or just being told what you've done wrong, whether you're a police officer or a black man in Baltimore, you're not going to hear. You're not going to understand where you can fit into being part of the solution and not the problem."
Ness filmed members of the community in one section of the city -- known as the "Middle East." She used a separate crew to film police on patrol in another part of the city -- the Southern District. If she had filmed residents and officers on the same turf it could have produced unintended conflict, Ness explained.
"It was strategic in many ways," Ness told us, "We also did not want the audience to have to have this moment where the police and the community members, both of whom they love and know, now have to rumble onscreen, and now they have to choose."
Long works with the city's Safe Streets program, similar to Chicago's Interrupters, which has found success disrupting a pattern of violence in which one killing would be followed by lethal retaliation. He also tries to interrupt a cycle of hopelessness and frustration.
"I see too many times the darkness is cast. We put all the negativity out there and we're not giving people motivations and reasons to want to be doctors and lawyers, and we tell them there's no hope," he says. "So if there's no hope, why am I going to school to get a law degree? So we really have to start putting the positive out there and people will change. As long as we put this negative image out there of the world, it's what we're going to get back."
I asked Ness how an environment that produces so much violence could also produce people like Long and Mr. C., who dedicate their lives to helping others and building a better community.
"I think people who have confronted unimaginable hardship are probably stronger than most of us," she noted. "When they walked through the fire, they decided what they were going to harden was love."
Despite the bracing picture painted in Charm City, the director finds glimmers of hope and inspiration.
"It was a really hard film, and certainly devastating on many levels, but I've been surprised and really glad that audiences feel hopeful when they leave," Ness said. "I do think the challenges are immense, but they're not insurmountable."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.