Even towards the end of shooting “Charm City,” Alex Long wasn’t sure what director Marilyn Ness or her cinematographer Andre Lumberton were actually looking for when they set up shop in his neck of Baltimore.
“I said, “Are you doing a ‘Love and Hip Hop’-type thing?” Long jokes now, knowing that Rose Street couldn’t be further from the the glitz and glamour of the VH1 reality series. “[They told me], ‘No, just keep being you. We love what you’re doing. Keep it up.” [But still] I’m like, ‘Nah…I’m not getting it.’”
It would take all of the three-and-a-half years that Ness and crew spent in Baltimore to get it themselves, tackling the systemic failure of the city that led to it have the highest per capita murder rate in the country when they first started rolling cameras in July 2015. But rather than find despair, Ness seeks out hope in “Charm City,” taking a multi-pronged approach to the crime epidemic by embedding with police, attending city council meetings and spending the days sitting on the stoops of Rose Street where community leader Clayton “Mr. C.” Guyton holds court, inspiring young African-American men like Long to work to improve their neighborhood from within when the city appears to actively be working against them, whether that’s through a police force they’ve come to completely distrust or isolating them geographically in low-income areas with little to no access to commute to work.
While Long, who works as part of the Rose Street Cleaning Crew and the community outreach program Safe Streets, becomes a shining example of someone making an effort to turn things around in Baltimore at a grassroots level, Ness’ panoramic view of the issues facing the city reveals that there are many others trying their best, but a lack of communication between various entities, each following their own code of conduct, has doomed meaningful progress and can trace how the closure of recreation centers and schools has fostered an environment where drugs and violence have become endemic and even if living in poverty isn’t entirely inevitable, it feels as if it is. That’s why it becomes inspiring to see Ness, through her subjects such as City Councilman Brandon Scott and Baltimore PD Captain Monique Brown, recast the conversation about crime in more nuanced terms, replacing cold statistics based on faulty premises with the day-to-day reality of being out on the streets.
In meticulously observing the vicious cycle that has kept so much of Baltimore from blossoming, “Charm City” edges towards a breakthrough, allowing parts of the society that have grown further and further apart over the years to once again have a common language to relate to each other and on the eve of the film’s release around the country following its premiere earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, Ness spoke about the ability of documentary to be able to facilitate such difficult discussions about how to move a community forward and was joined in Los Angeles by Long, who continues the struggle to make Baltimore a better place long after the cameras have left.
How did this come about?
Marilyn Ness: In late 2014, we wanted to explore the divide between police and citizens as we were watching all these high-profile deaths in police custody, but we wanted to understand what was before and what was after for everybody involved beyond the 30-second news clip that we’d see. Documentary film and particularly verite film is well-suited to stand in one place for a long time and try to explore those issues, so we set out to see if we could find our way to the police and the policed to understand what it meant to be each of them. I didn’t necessarily know that we wanted a councilman [as well], but I met Brandon Scott along the way. He was doing a lot of work around violence prevention and mentorship around young black men, so we started following him and I started to realize that having grown up in the city, he really understood this soup of issues and the nuance of the issues from all perspectives, so we decided to pursue government and the way in which they administer cities and the resources they do and don’t provide that impact this issue deeply.
Alex, when Marilyn comes around with a camera, what are you thinking?
Alex Long: Originally, I got involved through Mr. C and I was honestly cool, but as I tell everybody, it was more or less getting my family to be cool with it. At the time, my sister and her wife and her daughter was living with her and I don’t want to say [they were] camera-shy, but they made sure they were nowhere close. It really took me getting the family to understand, “Yo, this is really a good look for the whole city” because in most cases, when you see news cameras, it’s because of something negative. It’s not really you trying to come and shine the light in a good way on a situation. It’s usually [someone] trying to come and blow some stuff up, so that really made everybody originally nervous. But the more people [saw the filmmakers] really want to come and hear our stories, even my sister started to soften up, like singing on camera at the birthday party. Prior to that, this girl would literally call my phone every day before they got there and told me, “Bro, five minutes before they come, let me know so we can be gone.”
Marilyn Ness: I think we surprised them because we were there before Freddie Gray’s death and the media descended like locusts, but then they left and we kept coming back.
Alex Long: It was like why are they still here? The story done happened…
Marilyn Ness: I think they were never quite sure what we were after, but that day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out showed we were there for something different.
I’ve heard that you actually had approval to embed yourself with the police before the Freddie Gray tragedy. Did that access change after this death?
Marilyn Ness: It was very complicating because the police originally let us in and then they said, “We don’t want any cameras.” They were in full crouch, self-protection mode and we were still shooting around, but our access was definitely on again, off again, and it did change the production. I think a lot of people [on the outside] thought, “Oh you’re in Baltimore filming with the police? You must be making the Freddie Gray film.” But we never wanted to do those individual moments of tragedy, which just meant that we had to stay longer and in doing that, we had more time and got deeper in with Alex and Mr. C and Rose Street, but we also were able to give space to the police department until they could get more comfortable with the idea of our true intention to be empathetic.
Alex, when you realize you have this platform of a film, is there anything that’s important for you to get across?
Alex Long: Yeah, the main thing is individual accountability. We’re only going to go as forward as we take us, so it’s really a next man up type of mentality. I don’t want people sitting back 10 years, 20 years from now trying to blame the system when we have the prime opportunity, motive and everything to change our lives now. The one thing I really want people to take from this project is it doesn’t matter what it is, but please do your part. What makes us better as a society is everybody doing their part and carrying that weight.
Marilyn Ness: And it wasn’t just [in regards to] violence. There would be people on Rose Street that needed medical care and Mr. C would make sure that they could get in to see a doctor or a psychiatrist or a social worker. There’s a therapist who comes regularly to Rose Street because there’s tremendous trauma in the city, so doing your part encompasses a lot of things. People who collect uniforms to give to the kids so that they have clothes for school…
Alex Long: The guys that clean the neighborhood…people don’t understand how good you feel when you wake up and come outside and it’s clean versus getting up, coming outside and it’s a dump. We have no control over the whole city or world, no matter how you look at it, but if we all focus on our own pockets, we’re good. I’m going to make sure my son’s on the right track and my daughter, my nieces and if everybody does that, that’s what’s really going to advance us as a whole.
One of the striking things to me in the film is when Brandon calls the gun violence a housing and health issue, stemming from lack of opportunity and trauma, rather than a police issue. Throughout this, was it interesting to see how much of a difference the language being used makes, especially when everyone in different sectors were using different language?
Marilyn Ness: The way the problem comes to be is that it’s multifaceted and complicated and it’s not just one thing that isn’t working. It’s 15 things that aren’t working in just the right way together, so that’s why we kept the film more complicated. If Brandon talked about violence as a public health problem and Alex talks about it as a community problem and Mr. C talks about it as a love problem and the police talk about it still yet another way, though I think for [Captain] Monique Brown, it’s also a love problem, you start to understand that if you don’t like what’s happening, you can deal with it in all kinds of ways.
Alex Long: And honestly, like Brandon Scott said, it’s a mental health crisis because there’s no way possible that you can have a young man or a young female that witnessed their father be killed and not be affected by that, so you multiply that by every child pretty much that’s in the inner city that’s lost at least three close family members to it, and what are you dealing with?
Marilyn Ness: And the police officers that we’ve tasked to go into places where they can’t change much, so they’re cleaning up the violence.
Alex Long: Mentally, [it’s like] if you think of a soldier and he goes on tour and his platoon is wiped out, and he comes home and he’s labeled as what? Having PTSD, right? How can a 15-year-old child watch their father’s brains be blown out in front of them and they’re considered normal?
Marilyn Ness: And there’s no resources available to them. The most money from the city goes through the police department, so the only tools that are most readily available to deal with mental health issues are the criminal justice system.
Alex Long: And you put that on top of the fact that nobody’s being properly educated or has any [work], and like Marilyn’s saying, it’s the 15 things all together. So when you hear people speak about it, they may all sound different, but they’re all speaking about the same thing. This could be just what they see from their angle of what could be done differently and we spend too much time focusing on the label of it rather than actually trying to get the help for the [community]. Brandon Scott says it, “My father had high blood pressure, so when you’re testing me, you’re testing me for [my] family tree.” So when you’re looking at an individual [from our community], are you looking at the tree and these root issues? Or do you just say, “I see a guy who’s going through something”?
Since the film has screened in Maryland and Balitmore, specifically, has it already started connecting some of these disparate conversations?
Marilyn Ness: Yeah, the screenings have been wonderful and I think the people come out feeling both pained and proud of their city. We’ve also been doing a very strategic impact campaign, so this summer the police department used the film to train the first class of academy recruits, using the scenes that make them look not so good in addition to ones that show police officers dealing well with communities. Safe Streets is going to start using the film in training their workers as they expand [their services] in the city. We’re continuing the dialogues between police and youth, using segments of the film to help them understand each other and see the world from each other’s perspectives and we’re actually starting to talk to social workers to create a trauma module so we can discuss trauma in Safe Streets, in the police department, in schools and people can begin to understand what we’re seeing is the result of trauma and not just people behaving badly.
Was there a moment during filming when you thought it was about one thing, but it became something else?
Marilyn Ness: What did shift for us was what started to just look at what’s broken between police and citizens became a film about community violence — generational, systemic, traumatic violence for everyone caught in the system. That includes the police, the community and government officials and that the divide between police and citizen is both a cause and a product of the violence and vice versa. These are the cycles that will continue until we have the will to change the way we deal with it.
Alex Long: And people have to really understand that the violence is really a direct result of lack of opportunities. When you give people options, they always choose the right one. When you don’t have options, you usually just do whatever you can, and right now, we’re living in a society where everybody is just doing what they can to get by. That’s why a lot of time [it seems like] there’s no hope because everybody’s stuck in the rut that they’re going through [individually], thinking how can I make my situation better? I started with Mr. C 14 years ago, so when Marilyn originally came, maybe it was [all of us on Rose Street] just being naive and humble, but we didn’t know what it was they were expecting or what it was they were seeing, and we’ve been doing it every day now, so we never looked at ourselves like we were doing something different. We were doing what we had to do to make sure we were good.
Marilyn Ness: We didn’t really know what we were looking for either, but we knew when we found them that they were special.
“Charm City” opens on October 17th in New York at the IFC Center and on October 19th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall. A full schedule of cities and dates is here.