In the opening sequence for Charm City, Marilyn Ness’s new documentary set on the streets of perennially struggling Baltimore, Maryland, the title flickers intermittently to suggest the city’s perilous position: Is “Charm City” forever doomed to be “Harm City”? Filming in the years surrounding the killing of Freddie Gray in 2015—a period that saw the deaths of over 1,000 city residents due to an epidemic of gun violence—Ness dives down to street level to search for signs of progress amidst pervasive pain and despair.
Making excellent use of her cinéma vérité style, Ness introduces the human faces of the city’s hopes—the everyday heroes so often obscured by the hype and the headlines. The filmmakers spent over three years on the streets, getting to know organizers, cops, and residents. Given the tensions in the city at the time, the team needed to balance relationships and perceptions carefully; as they describe in their production notes:
[F]ilming with the “policed” and the police is delicate work. We realized early on that the same crews could not be seen getting out of a police car in the neighborhoods where we were filming with community members; and vice versa, our crews couldn’t be seen hanging out on the stoop with the citizens the police routinely patrolled.
To address this challenge Ness assigned two distinct crews—one sticking to the pavement and stoops in the Rose Street neighborhood of East Baltimore, the other embedded with officers and patrol cars of the city’s Southern District. As a result, both groups were able to develop familiarity and rapport with their subjects, rendering their cameras invisible and capturing the ways people speak and act in the world.
Thus, while the film is full of the clichés and conventions of both police procedurals and “poverty-porn,”the overall experience is refreshingly new. Viewers are neither titillated nor terrorized, but are instead invited to take their time and actually experience these places and interactions, reflecting on how they are lived and felt by the people in the documentary.
Occupying the moral center of this universe is Clayton Guyton, known as “Mr. C.,” a former corrections officer turned community organizer and neighborhood patriarch who holds court on Rose Street each day. With boundless empathy, he brings residents together to support each other and strengthen the community, coordinating everything from employment counseling and anti-violence mediation to neighborhood cleanups and movie nights.
Although Guyton is all-too-familiar with the pain and trauma encountered by residents on a daily basis, he works with steadfast determination and patience to work towards the positive. At times his temper does peek through—he scolds his audience for speaking over him and vents his frustration, anger, and sadness after another pointless death—but this only adds to his humanity.
For Mr. C., the emphasis is on the love, not the law. He holds the young men of his neighborhood to his own high standards before passing the torch to Alex Long, an organizer who graduates from the street to become an anti-violence “interrupter” with Baltimore’s Safe Streets initiative.
Baltimore City Council member Brandon Scott, whose election at age 27 made him the youngest councilperson in the city’s history, also makes a rewarding appearance in the film. Like all good planners, he starts by drawing the connections in the data—literally, on a map—between poor conditions, vacant buildings, vandalism, lack of economic opportunity, and the eventual outbreaks of violence that follow. “We have to look at public safety and gun violence as a disease and attack it from a public health point of view,” he tells an interviewer.
But beyond smart policy, one of the most lasting lessons of the film is the profound importance of the small things: keeping the streets clean, fetching a chair for an elder, giving someone in need a couple bucks, or even just saying “thank you.”
Some of the most hopeful moments from the “policing” side mirror this same wisdom, as practiced by rookie police officer Eric Winston. The time-tested seeds of good community policing are there when he stops to watch a game of chess on the stoop and explains Facebook-blocking to a senior citizen. When the informal neighborhood drum corps fear that the young officer is looking to harass them for disturbing the peace, Winston instead encourages to keep practicing.
At the neighborhood level, these small gestures have the power to build relationships and change lives for the better.