A Baltimore at Odds: Director Marilyn Ness on Finding the Humanity in 'Charm City'
In the most "dangerous city in America," a documentary searches for signs of resolution.
More than 1,000 people were murdered within city lines over the three years it took to complete Charm City, a compassionate, objective documentary about the social unrest between Baltimore, Maryland's police department and the residents they're at odds with. While the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department sparked outrage, the tension invoked from an abuse of authoritative power had been rising for decades.
Director Marilyn Ness (a producer on Kirsten Johnson's award-winning Cameraperson) took to traveling to Charm City to speak with the socially disregarded community and its overworked law enforcement. There she met with members of the Rose Street Community Center (lead by Clayton "Mr. C" Guyton and Alex Long), as well as police officers Monique Brown and Eric Winston, and Councilman Brandon M. Scott.
To say the film is determined to show both sides would be reductive; it shows how two sides, once considered equal, have grown apart due to a systemic failure of leadership. The issue is a social/health related-one, not easily fixed by having helicopters observing from above and turning Baltimore into a surveillance state.
The morning after the film made its World Premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, No Film School spoke with Ness about the importance of a city's history, its multiple perspectives, and its residents who serve as positive reinforcements in an area where they're hard to come by.
No Film School: What connection, if any, do you have to Baltimore? What was the original impetus for this project?
Marilyn Ness: We started thinking about the film in late 2014 around all of the high-profile deaths that took place while in police custody. We wanted to understand what wasn't working between police and citizens in the day-to-day. We were looking for a city that was trying [to change]. We called the Department of Justice—this was under the Obama administration—and asked, "Where is a city that's trying to reform?" And we were told, "Baltimore, hands down."
This was before Freddie Gray's death. Baltimore was a city that, at that point, had a majority of officers that were African-American, the city leadership was majority African-American, the police commissioner was, the mayor was, the majority of city council was, etc. But if they were doing implicit bias training and putting it into place, why was the city still corrupt? Why are there so many complaints against police? So, we thought, "All right, let's try Baltimore."
The city is close enough to New York [where we live], and we knew we had to get the permission of the police department before we started on the community side, because we wanted to show both. The police department, much to our shock, said, "Come on down," because they were proud of what they were trying to do. Then the events of April 2015 happened, and it all became more tenuous, but we hung in there.
"We went through three police commissioners with this film, and each time we had to go back and promise them that we weren't trying to throw them under the bus."
NFS: The film balances police officers as people trying to do the right thing contrasted with the negative perception held of them by the general public. Did law enforcement need any positive reinforcement from you that the film wasn't going to be a polemic?
Ness: When we called the Baltimore Police Department, at the time, there was a guy there named Captain Cualcheck, who was the head of media relations. He got on the phone and asked, "What district, what do you want? Who do you want to talk to?"
He did not sound happy to talk to me, and I asked, "I don't mean to sound unprepared for our conversation, but I was actually really curious, if I wanted to do a film on how you guys are trying to find a way forward, what would you have me film? Where would you have me film?" He paused, and then said, "Nobody has ever asked me that. Come on down." It became clear: We really needed to be with patrol officers on the street. It was not about what senior leadership was saying.
But then, in the wake of Freddie Gray's murder, that police commissioner got fired and Captain Cualcheck resigned. So, we went through three police commissioners with this film, and each time we had to go back and promise them that we weren't trying to throw them under the bus.
We had to take a step back. During all of the Freddie Gray news coverage, people were camera fatigued, and so it took a lot to maintain the police's faith in what we were trying to do. We had people within the department that were really beating the drum like, "We need to show police officers as human. We need to show what it looks like to do their job."
And when we showed the film to the patrol officers privately, Officer Winston said, "Thank you for telling our story, no one ever asks us what it's like for us to be police officers. The Commissioner's always the one who's talking, and he hasn't done foot patrol in 30 years."
NFS: Did they recommend you go to Rose Street?
Ness: No, we kept the worlds super separate. I told them what we were doing, that we were trying to do an empathetic portrait on both sides, but for each side, we promised them their truth and confidentiality. Because of this, we actually used two separate crews to film, so that it wouldn't be like, "I can't go film the police today, because I have to do something over at Rose Street." We never wanted to invite those questions.
Regarding Rose Street, I got referred to the former health commissioner of Baltimore (he was one of my very first research trips) and he agreed to do a driving tour of the city with me, where he started up near Johns Hopkins University. We drove a couple of miles, and he remarked, ”From there-to-here, the life expectancy for a man just dropped 20 years."
I asked him, "If we're looking for people who feel excessively patrolled and policed, where would you recommend we go?" And he's like, "You know, there's this place, the Rose Street Community Center…I don't know if they're still there, but they were there 20 years ago.” I looked them up and Mr. C was there, and he's like, "Come on down."
Ness: My co-producer, Meryam Bouadjemi, and I walked onto Rose Street and Mr. C invited us to come right after our morning meeting, so it was like 8:15 AM. All the guys were still out front, and as we walked through this throng, I was like, "I don't know what's going on."
Mr. C invited Meryam and I to sit down and while we were talking to Mr. C, you could hear hubbub outside. A kid walked in, and he looked at us and Mr. C, and Mr. C, asked, "You alright?" And the kid's like, "I'm alright." And Mr. C's like, "No, you alright?" And the kid was like, "No, I'm not alright."
Basically, the corner store is two blocks down, and the kid walked himself down from the corner store to Rose Street for two blocks to come tell Mr. C if shorty up at the corner doesn't stop disrespecting him, he was going to pop him. Because Mr. C was in the middle of something, all the guys outside were like, "We got it. We got it, Mr. C." They took the kid aside and walked him off the ledge, and I was like, "Okay, something amazing just happened here. I don't totally understand what, but this is it.” We started filming with a few other people, and very quickly we knew, "We need these guys."
"Alex told us later that he asked Mr. C, 'Are those two white ladies for real?' And Mr. C said, 'They're persistent.'"
NFS: Was Alex Long there?
Ness: He was. Alex was interested in film, so Mr. C asked, ”Why don't you talk to Alex?" And Alex told us, "I have nothing else to do and I'm interested in film.”
We showed up many times without a camera, just for us to get a sense of the area right before we were going to come down. We kept showing up again and again, and then Freddie Gray’s death occurred, and we still kept showing up. Alex told us later that he asked Mr. C, "Are those two white ladies for real?" And Mr. C said, "They're persistent." That’s what Mr C looks for. If you are willing to go the mile and just keep going, that is the fight worth fighting. If you have an idea, as long as you're showing up, he'll show up for you.
NFS: While the film is very much about Baltimore in the present day, its history is what brought it to this troubled point. How did you come to a decision on what to contextualize—i.e. white flight in the 1970s. and persistent redlining—and when to include it in this documentary?
Ness: That was the challenge of vérité, as we knew this was a problem entrenched with systemic failures. If you're going to film vérité , then it's just unfolding in real life before your camera, but I didn't want people to feel, "Well, that's [specifically] Alex’s problem,” or, "Tough life..,” and not think that wasn't being repeated over and over again. Alex said it, occasionally, in the film, when he tells the story of his childhood and how his dad was arrested and his mom got hooked on drugs, and he says, "But that was the story with all my friends. I didn't know it was any different."
Sometimes the people on-screen would contextualize it, but it really became clear that we needed to show the audience that while this is one specific story, in the case of our segment on vacant homes, for example, it’s happening 30,000 more times around the city. While Alex was falsely arrested, it happened to 50% of men his age by the 2000's.
It just felt important for people to not walk away from this film thinking that it just happens now. They have to know this long history and that it took a long time to get here. That's why these are such complicated problems. If it was easy, everyone would have fixed it by now.
"Everybody's answer is always, 'Well, send the police.' It's like, 'Well, there's actually a lot of other agencies that should probably be sent to deal with that, and not these guys.'"
NFS: You had that struggle of the city council complaining about, "Why are we paying cops this much overtime while nothing is changing in the streets?" But it was a much larger issue than that.
Ness: Exactly. The police had done 12-hour shifts like four times in that span, because there would be multiple homicides and they'd be put on 12-hour shifts. There were already too few guys on staff and they were exhausted. But no matter what they did, they were beaten up for it in the press. They get up every day to go do their job and they hated that the homicides were persisting. They felt like they were failing at their jobs. There just wasn't enough of them.
We kept trying to show that it wasn’t only a police problem. Everybody's answer is always, "Well, send the police." It's like, “Well, there's actually a lot of other agencies that should probably be sent to deal with that, and not these guys.” But, there's no other number to call. Our cities have all structured themselves for when there's a problem, you should call 911 so they can send you firemen or police. I'm not really sure that every time you call, a 22-year-old with a gun is who should be showing up.
NFS: With all of this footage, how did the edit come together?
Ness: My editor, Don Bernier, watched all the footage, and I would say to him, "Humanity, humanity, humanity, that's what we're looking for." He'd find these moments and he'd cut these little scene-lets, and we’d have hundreds of them, and they were awesome.
But then we started putting them together and got to understand that it worked better to let them play a little while, to sit in a place for a while. We wanted to force these perspective shifts, and a really good one came when we were researching, you'd always heard police say (and Winston says it in the film), "We're only there at the worst moments of these people's lives. They don't call us otherwise. We're not there for the birthday parties, we're not there for the graduations."
NFS: You had two separate crews for the film, one following the police and one following the people of Rose Street. Were you constantly checking in with both?
Ness: It was tricky. At a certain point, we had to let the film tell us how to make it. We were having a hard time trying to capture that de-escalation on camera, and when I would show up with a camera and sound, it just would just come to a halt. At one point, Alex said, “It would be easier if you didn't come, Marilyn,” because I was a white lady. He said, "If a black guy shows up with a camera, it's just a black guy with a camera. If a white lady shows up with a camera, it's a movie."
And so our co-producer, Andre Lambertson, started going down to Rose Street on his own. I would usually check in and figure out what was happening, and we would deploy Andre to go down. Either I would watch the dailies at night and Andre would go get the thing we thought was working out, or after a while, we got pretty specific. We would then film with the police.
I tended to ride along with them more, because things would go down, and you'd have to figure out how you wanted to shoot that. But Meryam and I were the only ones who went back-and-forth, because you really can't get out of the police car in the same neighborhood where you're filming on the community side.
" I did one morning with Alex, and then that afternoon, I went to patrol with the police, and then I lost my mind."
NFS: Because they would think of you...
Ness: As a snitch. And it would be bad for those guys. So we just really had to separate those two universes. I tried really hard to separate one-kind-of-trip from another one-kind-of-trip.
Towards the end, I was getting too, "All right, we need to do this kind of pick up and this kind of pick up." And I did one morning with Alex, and then that afternoon, I went to patrol with the police, and then I lost my mind. I loved all of them, but if I would go with the police and felt they could potentially lock up Alex, I’d stay with Alex. I knew he really hated the police, and so I couldn't [personally] keep shifting between the two in a single day.
I did it one day, and as I got on the train to go home, my mind exploded. It did. And I was like, "I cannot make this film. This just can't be an act of efficiency. This has to just be the patient way we make a film, and if it takes five more days to shoot it because I have to do a day here and a day there, that was how it would have to go."
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.