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[This story contains spoilers for HBO Max’s Charm City Kings.]
Since the HBO Max original Charm City Kings debuted on the platform on Oct. 8, the film has earned both praise from professional film critics and criticism from inside the dirt bike community it in part portrayed.
Directed by Angel Manuel Soto and based on the 2013 documentary The 12 O’Clock Boys, the feature depicts the coming-of-age story of West Baltimore middle-school student Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), an aspiring veterinarian who is also an avid fan of Baltimore’s dirt bike scene. (While operating a dirt bike or ATV is illegal in Baltimore, it remains a cherished pastime for some in the city, and police are not allowed to chase riders.) Despite resistance from his mom (Teyonah Parris) to all things dirt bikes, Mouse ends up working for Blax (rapper Meek Mill), the ex-con former head of the shadowy biking group The Midnight Clique, who mentors him while teaching him how to build a bike. Seeing his mom struggle with bills, however, pushes Mouse to spend more time with Midnight Clique members themselves and ultimately plan a robbery to make extra cash, imperiling his future.
The film’s depiction of a Baltimore boy joining a dirt bike group that sells drugs has drawn criticism from members of the city’s bike scene and other critics, who say the film sets up a false choice for Mouse between riding and staying out of jail. Moreover, the film, critics say, harps on stereotypical portraits of urban hardship that titles like The Wire and The Corner have already sketched of Baltimore. “Beyond the ooh and ahh moments, the dirt bikers are largely seen as menaces in a one-dimensional portrayal that reinforces stereotypes about the people and the community they come from,” writer Lawrence Burney wrote in the Post.
In a comment, Charm City Kings producer Caleeb Pinkett says, “The movie is not about dirt bike culture. The movie is about a kid and which way he’s going to go as a man,” adding that film isn’t an “indictment” of dirt bikes but rather the systems that create Mouse’s choices in the film. “This is a film about young, Black kids in poor neighborhoods and the decisions that they’re forced to make versus children that grow up in non-poor neighborhoods that have means.” Pinkett says the filmmakers wanted to be honest about both positive sides to dirt bikes, as represented by Mill’s character Blax, and the negative side, as represented by the Midnight Clique.
One of the film’s critics, engineer Brittany Young, works with Baltimore’s dirt bike riders regularly as the founder of B-360, an organization that leverages young people’s interest in dirt bikes to provide STEM education, career mentoring and safe riding events. Though some of her B-360 students are now featured in HBO Max’s Charm City Kings social media campaign called “Why I Ride,” Young initially had an allegedly unproductive exchange with Sony when the film was housed at the studio: “We reached out to them and they reached out to us” starting in 2018, but only offered the organization a $1,000 donation, she says (THR has reviewed emails about the donation from Sony on behalf of the film to B-360). Young says she instead asked for other kinds of collaboration, like for students to join the film as extras or having B-360 riders on set but “those things kind of never happened,” she says. Pinkett says that the film’s producers, “the people who could’ve addressed any issues,” were never in contact with Young.
“The irony of this entire discussion is that the film and B-360 are ultimately aligned in their messaging: to shine a light on the flawed systems that limit, stigmatize, and often criminalize, the passions of young boys and girls of color, in Baltimore and so many cities just like it,” producer Clarence Hammond adds. Sony did not respond to THR‘s request for comment. HBO Max has since made a larger donation than that offered by Sony (which the organization never cashed) to B-360.
In her first full-length interview about the film, Young gave The Hollywood Reporter her review of the project based on her everyday experiences with riders, her advice for future filmmakers seeking to tell local stories and why she’s sharing with Hollywood, “you can tell your stories, but you can do it with the people.”
Prior to Charm City Kings, how has Baltimore’s dirt-bike culture generally been represented in media?
The work that [B-360] has done is really around re-shaping the narrative and focusing on the positive attributes and success stories. Prior to us, some of the quotes in, like, articles in The Baltimore Sun called dirt bike riders “gun-toting criminals,” people who ride “lawlessly and with impunity,” and it really focused on a stereotypical image of black men and boys and/or of Baltimore. We really wanted to make sure that we showed that dirt bikes are not synonymous with guns, gangs or drugs, and that the stories of riders are not a monolith — that people can start it as a sport, a fun, recreational activity, and that through programming and support and hopefully one day having a space, we can [use] that experience to get more youth and young adults involved and home into that culture to benefit the city and the people.
The documentary, The 12 O’Clock Boys, I think was the first large explosion of the [culture into a] feature-length film. The 12 O’Clock Boys was also referenced in a Jay-Z line in a hip-hop song; the TV show Black Lightning also references The 12 O’Clock Boys as well.
Since the release of Charm City Kings, The Baltimore Sun and Washington Post have reported criticisms of how Baltimore’s dirt bike culture is portrayed in the film. What are your personal views on how it went about handling the culture?
I’ll start with the good first: My favorite character is Meek Mill’s character, Blax. He reminds me of rider I know, Mike, who works at B-360. Where Mike’s story is different is that Mike, unlike Blax, doesn’t have to sacrifice himself and go back to jail because we’re helping him provide those opportunities to make sure he can grow his talent and to teach people and to learn. With Mouse, he reminds me of a lot of Baltimore City Public School students, like myself, who are curious, who have these innate loves and skills and talents. Where it differs is, with B-360, you don’t have to choose between school, education, doing things the right way and riding dirt bikes. I appreciated seeing the authentic dirt-bike riders in the background and in the credits for the movie.
Where I think some pieces were missed is that bike life and drug life are not synonymous and that you do not have to choose between riding a dirt bike, which can lead to drugs, and/or being a veterinarian. Actually, you can do both, and you don’t have to be involved in the drug life. The motto for a lot of dirt bike riders is “bikes up, guns down” for that reason — [there’s] the mentoring, the love of the sport, the brotherhood, the sisterhood, to really deter people from going into drugs and into violence. I also wanted people to focus more on not the struggle of Black Baltimoreans, because that’s not even the same for all of us — there are plenty of middle-class and upper-middle-class Black families in Baltimore, and even in the community where Mouse lives in real life, there are still middle-class Black families — the issue is that the city itself does not get invested in and historically Black neighborhoods get left out of conversations about investment. What we see in the effects and ill returns is not enough programming, not enough outlets, not enough opportunities to grow.
B-360 hosted a panel at a public screening of Charm City Kings earlier this month. What was the reception of the viewers at your event to the film?
There was an array of reactions. We had on a panel with actual dirt bike riders, young and old, from New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Baltimore. Similar to me, everyone loved Meek Mill’s character, his duality, seeing him as a mentor, seeing his struggles to help Mouse and see Mouse do better. Some of the pain points also came with the narrative of dirt bike riders being criminals because they also felt like that set them back. The same with our students who ride: For them, Meek Mill’s character was great, but they just wished that Mouse would continue to ride a dirt bike [by the end]. They wished that more about him as a kid in Baltimore would have been told, and less about him having to possibly sell drugs.
One of the questions was, who was the better mentor, Meek Mills or Rivers? And so there were some mixed responses about both. From being on a panel with [Rivers actor] Will Catlett, his explanation about the character was wanting to show officers how they can respond in communities, and I think that’s really powerful. I think some people may have missed that if you didn’t have that background knowledge, because it could seem like the officer character was the better mentor.
Do representations of dirt-bike culture on film and television have an impact on the support that your organization receives and/or legislation, in your view?
I would say yes. I’m not bashing the film [but] I think where the issue comes in is the city of Baltimore allowed a film like this to take place in the same community that does not get investment, with the same group of riders who they’ve ostracized and demonized and do not have a space in this city to ride [in]. Selling a story to Hollywood is one thing, but we have to think about the end result in return: What do riders get from this movie? What did Baltimore get from this movie? Because this film will entice more people to ride because it’s fun, it’s cool. And it will also, unfortunately, inspire more people to misunderstand something about dirt bike riding because of the same perpetuated narrative. So my challenge to Baltimore and cities like ours is to reach out to B-360 specifically to make sure that we’re carving out a narrative that works for the city, with the riders, with the community, with the police, because we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the people and we really just need to make sure we’re growing solutions and not the same typical narrative about Black people and/or Black struggle.
What is your advice for filmmakers who want to portray Baltimore’s dirt-bike culture in the future?
Riders have their own voices, they have their own stories. And I think sometimes people have their own preconceived notions of what a story should be and how it can go, and so I would say the missed opportunity is to tell a really authentic dirt bike rider story from the viewpoint of real riders. That’s what I would like to see, more people who do films about this style of riding working directly with the riders. I think that could elevate the culture to a new level, give voices to people who are typically misunderstood or not heard and show Hollywood that you can tell your stories but you can do it with the people. That’s pretty much the model of B-360: Even me being from Baltimore, I didn’t wake up and say, “Hey, this is what I’m going to do.” I said, “This is what I want to do so I’m going to get support from all the stakeholders” so the riders, the police, the students, the community, because that’s the only way of making sure we move forward together.
Are there any other takeaways you want to add?
The big takeaway is this is a film, it’s not real life. And if people want to hear from real riders, ask them why they ride respectfully. If you want to learn about real Baltimore stories, it is not just this same West Baltimore struggle story. And hopefully people can look past the way people have painted Baltimore not just in this movie but period: We see it during elections, we see it from the president. I want people to think that we all do not come from the same neighborhoods or the same type of origins. Our uniqueness in Baltimore is that we have been showing people that while we do not get the most resources, while we may be the talk of the town in the worst way sometimes, we also have the most brilliant people. I really want people to focus on: What can Baltimore look like if it was invested into? So that’s really what I want people to take away: Build with communities, think about real investment and impact, especially in this climate.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Oct. 30, 9:09 a.m. Updated with Caleeb Pinkett’s statement on initial exchange with Sony.
Oct. 30, 5:51 p.m. Updated with content from B-360 donation emails and new Pinkett and Hammond statements.
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