Bobby Marvin Holmes and Justin Gladden know they aren’t the first people to examine racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But with their new documentary, they hope to join the conversation.
The filmmakers, both born and raised in Baltimore, will release “Free Young Blood: Combating the Mass Incarceration of Black Males” on Sunday. It’s the second installment in their three-part “Young Blood” documentary series, a term borrowed from 1970s blaxploitation films.
Holmes, 33, and Gladden, 31, studied journalism at Morgan State University and worked in Baltimore as community journalists before pursuing long-form storytelling about Baltimore’s youth. The topics of each documentary in the “Young Blood” series emerged naturally as Holmes and Gladden covered and interacted with their communities (the third installment will focus on education, with an expected 2019 release, they said).
“We had a little bit of experience, of course, covering the stuff, but we had to dig a lot deeper. We had to find out who was doing a lot of the groundwork,” Gladden said. “We were kind of shaky on what we wanted to do with it at first, and I think the audience told us what we should do with it.”
The duo's first documentary, “Live Young Blood,” released in 2013, centers around Baltimore’s “epidemic” of violence and community efforts to curb it; Holmes and Gladden feature interviews with mentors, activists, coaches and families affected by gun violence. The duo aims to take a similar solutions-based approach in “Free Young Blood,” which will also examine contributing factors to mass incarceration, such as drug policy and income inequality.
The documentary, which was self-funded, will premiere at 6 p.m. at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, followed by a panel discussion. The premiere falls two days before the anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death, an intentional move, Holmes said.
“Justin and I struggled with the unrest during the making of this film — struggled with it in the sense that Baltimore’s our home,” he said. “We’ve been covering Baltimore for over 10 years, so the stories are very intimate to us, not just because it’s coming from our community, the black community, but also that this is where our families live. We didn’t want to seem like opportunists.”
Holmes and Gladden started filming “Free Young Blood” soon after protests and a night of rioting broke out in the city after Gray’s death. Though they had been in preproduction for months and the subject of the documentary had been cemented, the unrest influenced its narrative.
“It didn’t shape our decision to make the film, but it inevitably steered it in that direction, because it just had to,” Gladden said. “It’s kind of like, you can’t address incarceration and not address the war on drugs and zero-tolerance policy.”
Though each of the duo's films has a distinct topic, the centerpiece to all of them is poverty and lack of opportunity, Holmes said.
“It’s pretty much synonymous with saying, 'It’s raining outside and you’re expecting not to get wet'; in that culture, to expect not to encounter violence is almost being unrealistic,” he said. “Poverty was again that recurring theme for both.”
Holmes’ biological father and uncles were in and out of prison throughout his life; though he knew what was going on, Holmes said he didn’t fully understand the war on drugs’ impact on his family until filming “Free Young Blood." He hopes to bring that knowledge to colleges, churches, community centers and lawmakers.
“That’s our goal, to push it out to different youth programs and get it to the hands of the people who need it most,” Holmes said. “The people who need the conversation the most are in Sandtown-Winchester."
But Holmes added that he and Gladden realized "everyone" was their target audience.
“If we are serious about upholding our democracy, if we are serious about upholding the U.S. Constitution that is for all Americans, then the issue of criminal justice that is imperfect and also biased — that’s a concern for us all," Holmes said.