When you hear names like Freddie Gray and Michael Brown you immediately think of their respective cities: Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri. The lives of its community members are usually depicted via news footage, twitter images, or Facebook streams during the cities’ peaceful protests or outbreaks of violence. But what do these cities look like from day to day? Charm City aims to show two sides to the same story of how Baltimore deals with its’ violence in a heart-wrenching look at a city in crisis.
Baltimore filmmaker and award winning director Marilyn Ness spent three years in the Rose Street area of East Baltimore. The opening scene of the documentary sets the tone and pace for the rest of the film. As one of the doc’s main characters, Mr. C., a former corrections officer, talks with residents about the latest act of violence that has brought the police to their block in the middle of the night. Ness’s camera rests in the scene and editor Don Bernier gives us long takes of shots that won’t move on to the next like our brain wants it to. The result, is a feeling of actually being there. This is what a late night/early morning looks like for these residents. It’s reality, and reality isn’t roses.
Mr. C leads the Rose Street Community Center. He is the heart of the community, hosting morning meetings that begin with a strong “good morning” that he expects to hear returned in the same way. He gives direction to the residents who participate in the Safe Streets initiative in which they clean the alleys and streets of Baltimore. Mr. C gives bus fare, acts as a male mentor, and distributes job opportunity information to those who need it. This is the way he combats the violence in the streets.
In the same way, we’re embedded in the police department with a variety of officers. We ride with officer Eric Winston as he answers calls. Again, the editing of these calls is sublime as we see Officer Winston respond to a call as humorously simple as an older woman trying to figure out how to block a woman that her husband of 27 years has been communicating with on Facebook, to a serious shooting that interrupts a stop he’s in the midst of that we hear on camera. The viewer feels embedded in a way that’s not like the old Cops TV show we used to watch. That show gave us wide shots during many scenes in order to “not miss anything”. Here, cameramen Andre Lambertson and John Benam direct our eyes to universal moments. Officer Winston’s hand riding the air out of an open window, the unnatural look of a face hit by flashing police lights, or the glimpse of an old man on the street as the police car moves past. By being integrated in such a way that can feel mundane at times, we get a real sense of the stress that officers feel as they try to protect and serve the nearly 620,000 people of Baltimore.
If you’re looking for a formal three act story, you won’t find it in this film. Instead it builds by giving us the day to day look at those involved. We attend a funeral of a young man, in a small church. His father gives an impassioned speech near his deceased son claiming “we ain’t afraid to die, we afraid to live!” It’s this statement and other’s like “there’s too much policing but not enough justice” from Alex Long, one of the Safe Streets leaders, that give us the feeling of life as a resident in this area of Baltimore. Charm City gives us the faces of wariness, hopelessness, and despair from violence. Yet, somewhere in it’s run time a resilient hope continues to pop up on both sides of city officials and residents.
If the film meanders without a predictable structure, it wraps with a moment that keen film lovers may have seen foreshadowed, as the painful sting of life on Rose Street hits home. It’s in this moment that the film gives another glimmer of hope in a difficult world. It gives the viewer tremendous respect for the subjects of the film, because as I watched the movie, I kept asking myself questions like “why do some people have it so hard?”, “why am I still watching this depressing film?”, “why can’t officials help the people?” and more. Charm City answers simply: whether you want to close your eyes and shut your ears to what you’ve seen and heard or not, this is life for us, we make the most of it and we’re going to do our best to beat the odds with or without you.