When filmmaker Marilyn Ness arrived with her crew to Baltimore in late 2014, she planned to document the systemic factors underlying the recent spate of high-profile deaths of African Americans in police custody. While these tragedies rocked cities from Sanford, Florida, to Ferguson, Missouri, Ness selected Baltimore because it “hadn't had a cataclysm like that,” she tells RECORD. She hoped that would allow her film to illuminate the broader issues, rather than viewing the issues through the lens of a single incident. But then, on April 12, 2015, Baltimore joined those cities and others in the headlines, when 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody, touching off protests, riots, and cries for justice.
Other filmmakers might have pivoted, but Ness had done the groundwork for a specific film. So for the next year she waited out the storm. What she found was that “the world stayed exactly the same for our community members and our police officers once the dust had settled,” she says. “So that became our tension—grappling with what happens before and after.” Ness and her team were able to stick with the original premise of investigating the simmering factors in a community that can eventually boil over into violence.
In the end, Charm City, which screened Wednesday at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, nods toward Gray’s death. But it’s overtaken by a grimmer reality: In the time Ness shot the film, from July 2015 to September 2017, 1,030 people were murdered in Baltimore—the city’s deadliest three-year period in recent memory.
A city in the grip of seemingly endless violence became the spine of the film, but Baltimore was never exactly the focus. Ness instead wanted to document the difficult, important, and necessary work of halting — and reversing — the city’s systemic corrosion: crime, diminished male life expectancy, non-existent social and after-school programs, and police brutality. “Baltimore looms quite large as a character,” Ness says, but “we were trying to understand the day-to-day of someone trying to do their job well or trying to live well.”
Charm City presents a vibrant, occasionally unexpected, cross-section of Baltimore. There’s Clayton “Mr. C” Guyton, a former corrections officer who opened Rose Street Community Center in 1998 as a space for encouragement, aid, and uplift that keeps young men structured and supported. There’s Alex Long, a kind of next-generation Mr. C who eventually opens a kickboxing gym as his own version of Rose Street. There’s city councilman Brandon Scott, addressing violence as a public-health issue and creating creative, empathetic avenues for citizen-police engagement. And there’s the police themselves: officers Eric Winston and John Gregorio and captain Monique Brown who all find ways to have proactive, human interactions—especially with young people—on their beats.
After screening the film for her subjects, “the police officers said, ‘Thank you for making the film from our perspective. No one ever listens to what it is like to be us,’” Ness recalls. “And for a group like Rose Street, who is only on the news in one very particular way, to see themselves reflected and the good work they do every day was really inspiring for them.”
Charm City is undeniably tough. Trauma haunts every scene, and the crushing monotony of the experience—be it Mr. C giving a version of the same pep talk over and over again, or officers responding to a constantly streaming spigot of crime—could easily inspire hopelessness. But the people we meet have an indestructible spirit. At the end of the film, for instance, Long’s sister is murdered. He’s devastated, yet redoubles his efforts to break the cycle of violence.
Ness hopes Charm City can play a role in that work. Her team is launching an impact campaign to initiate the conversations necessary to engage Baltimore in changing the narrative: What does it mean to support groups like Rose Street? What does it take to support building more police/citizen dialogue? Where is the common ground?
“We all—we all —understand what is hanging over this town, and yet people marshal on,” she says. “People are lifers in Baltimore, and they’re heartbroken about the violence in their city. But they are committed to change and rebuilding their city in a way that will make them proud.”
Charm City screened in New York on June 20 as part of the 2018 Human Rights Watch Film Festival and will be released in other parts of the country throughout the year. Find more information at ff.hrw.org and charmcitydoc.com.