'Charm City': Film Review | Tribeca 2018

Oh, Baltimore, man it’s hard just to live.

'Cameraperson' producer Marilyn Ness chronicles the lives of several Baltimoreans in a feature documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Returning to terrain that was explored with searing emotional depth and masterful detail in HBO’s The Wire, the feature documentary Charm City captures yet another facet of Baltimore’s ongoing crisis as one of the most dangerous cities in America.

Directed by Marilyn Ness, who produced the award-winning doc Cameraperson, this Tribeca festival premiere follows a cast of real-life cops, community organizers and politicians as they try to save lives in a place where death is an everyday occurrence. Well-made, while offering brief flashes of hope despite the harsh realities depicted, the film could charm its way to VOD and TV spots both in the U.S. and overseas.

Ness spent nearly three years capturing life in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods — the Rose Street area in East Baltimore — while partaking in ride-alongs with various members of the local police department. Very much like David Simon, although in a purely nonfictional manner, she tries to reveal two sides of the same story: the law enforcement officers who patrol the streets (often alone in their vehicles — the city can’t seem to afford enough policemen to ride in pairs), and citizens trying to survive the same streets while also keeping them safe for others.

What emerges is the portrait of a place that’s been more or less left to abandon, with the cops working too much overtime with too little assistance, and community members struggling to keep the peace as fights and shots break out over their block. Grim statistics back up what we’re seeing on screen, such as the fact that Baltimore, a city built for one million inhabitants whose population currently hovers around 620,000, has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country. (During the time the film was made, 171 people were killed in a span of seven months.) Yet in 2016, only 38 percent of all murders were solved, with many witnesses obeying the “stop snitchin’” laws of street silence and refusing to collaborate with the police.

A handful of characters are highlighted by Ness’ narrative, with the main focus on Mr. C., a former corrections officer who runs the Rose Street Community Center in the heart of one of Baltimore’s worst neighborhoods, enlisting men and teenagers to clean the streets and keep out of trouble. But heroin, alcohol and violence run rampant around them, and Mr. C.’s tough-love wisdom can only go so far to protect his fellow residents — including the family of an ex-convict who works as part of the Safe Streets initiative, educating local youth about guns, drugs and other dangers.

Another main player is officer Eric Winston, who’s been on the police force for two years and struggles to perform his duties in an underfinanced department, with arrests thrown out of court for procedural issues that turn criminals back on the streets. And there’s also councilman Brandon Scott, an outspoken critic of city policy who tries as he can to reverse the trend — including setting up one-on-one dialogues between cops and kids — but faces the strain of budget shortages and faulty legislature.

Reference is made to the Freddie Gray case, as well as to a major police scandal that made headlines at the beginning of this year, but Charm City tends to concentrate more on individuals than on the bigger picture, mimicking The Wire in its effort to present the human repercussions of Baltimore's urban plight. In that sense, the documentary may feel somewhat redundant for fans of the series, with Ness not necessarily bringing anything new to the table — except perhaps the fact that things have failed to improve over time and only seem, in some ways, to have gotten worse.

Yes despite its dreary outlook, the film does offer a semblance of hope in the generosity, good humor and tenacious sangfroid of the people it portrays. Many of them hail from extremely difficult backgrounds, yet they’ve managed somehow to turn their lives around and are now helping others do the same. If the laws of the street dictate that every man fend for himself, then Charm City proves that some folks can find a calling by fending for others. And it’s those people who seem to keep certain parts of Baltimore — other parts have been experiencing gentrification in recent years — from sliding into an abyss of crime and degradation from which they may never return.

Tech credits are solid, especially camerawork by Andre Lambertson and John Benam that captures the beauty of the cityscape in the daytime, or the eerie effects of police lights flashing across faces and facades in the night.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Production company: Big Mouth Productions
Director: Marilyn Ness
Producers: Katy Chevigny, Marilyn Ness
Executive producers: Dana DiCarlo, Fagan Harris
Directors of photography: Andre Lambertson, John Benam
Editor: Don Bernier
Composer: T. Griffin
Co-producers: Meryam Bouadjemi, Andre Lambertson
Sales: Ro*co Films

106 minutes