Tag Archives: Baltimore

From the Corners to the Council, Baltimore under a Microscope

Charm City

by Matt Weiner

If the Midwest is often treated as America’s test market for new products, Baltimore makes a good case as America’s stand-in for how our cities have been neglected, in ways both passive and pernicious. With Charm City, Marilyn Ness sketches the big picture by zooming in on one city neighborhood.

Ness centers the documentary around those most affected by the violence and lack of opportunity in the city, spending time on the streets with the irrepressible Clayton “Mr. C” Guyton. Mr. C runs a neighborhood community center, providing a mix of social services, inspirational sermons and a contagious hope that things must get better.

Also represented is the Baltimore Police Department, whose officers are buckling under constant overtime in an attempt to stem the record murder rate. Politicians get their due through the eyes of Brandon Scott, a reform-minded city councilman (and the youngest person elected to the position).

At first it seems like Ness’s framing is nuanced to a fault. She studiously highlights the interactions on all sides as an almost routine drudgery. Or as routine as life can be when you’re in a constant struggle for resources just to survive.

But haunting the periphery is the death of Freddie Gray, which took place just months before the film begins. Ness limits her interviews to the more optimistic and eager officials and officers, but even relatively benign interactions are impossible to separate from the wider conversations happening around criminal justice reform in cities and police departments all over the country.

As frustrating as it can be when Ness sticks to her granular talking head shots, there’s a still a message—even if that message to viewers is often that you’re going to need to do some extra homework on this.

And it’s effective. It’s heartbreaking when the people on Mr. C’s block abruptly suffer the loss of one of their own. It’s bracing to hear them refuse to give up even though they feel like everyone else has abandoned them. It’s useful to see how city officials view doing the right thing, and how quickly that impulse crashes against a public health epidemic that cannot be theirs alone to fix.

There have been plenty of superb recent documentaries about criminal justice in America, including Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Erik Ljung’s The Blood Is at the Doorstep. Charm City probably shouldn’t be the only film to watch if you’re looking to go deeper on the subject, but it’s a fine and no less urgent place to start.

Trading his Wings for Some Wheels

12 O’clock Boys

by Hope Madden

A coming of age story set in poverty stricken, crime riddled West Baltimore sounds like an episode of the Wire gone sentimental. That’s not 12 O’clock Boys, though. 

We follow Pug, a savvy and funny preteen on the verge of adult decisions that will impact his life’s trajectory. And length.

What is absolutely fascinating about Lofty Nathan’s documentary, though, is that gangs and drugs and time spent on the corner are the furthest things from Pug’s consciousness. This is not to say that his goals are legal, exactly. And they certainly aren’t safe.

No, Pug wants desperately to join the dirt bikers who overrun West Baltimore streets each Sunday night, weaving in and out of traffic, through red lights, onto sidewalks – anywhere they like. Hundreds of zig-zagging, wheelie-popping maniacs have a blast while terrorizing and amazing onlookers, and Pug has no more passionate wish than to become one of them.

Filmed over three years, the doc chronicles Pug’s burgeoning adolescence as well as the societal, cultural and economic landmines between him and manhood. The fact that Pug is adorable – very small with a cherubic face and sly smile – only makes his struggle, his innocence that much more poignant.

But Nathan unveils more than just one boy’s journey. The footage of the Baltimore biking phenomenon is mind boggling, and the freedom and power the sport offers its riders does not skip by without mention. You might even applaud these young men of West Baltimore for avoiding, at least on Sunday evenings, much of the lawbreaking commonly found in their neighborhoods. But the 12 O’clock Boys – named for their ability to pull their bikes so far into a wheelie that they look like the hand of a clock striking 12 – can hardly be considered law-abiding.

And as thousands of traffic laws are beaten to submission each weekend, Baltimore police find themselves in a tough situation. The law forbids chasing the bikers because of the danger a chase poses to the riders and to bystanders, but they’re all in danger enough with or without a cop chase.

Wisely, Nathan’s position is not to judge the riders, the cops, the environment or Pug. Rather, he opens up an unseen world of skill, bravado and hellish traffic, and lets us watch it through the eyes of a budding young man still weighing his limited options.