HBO's "Baltimore Rising" opens on a brilliant note.
The documentary directed by Sonja Sohn, of "The Wire," instantly establishes itself visually with an overhead camera shot scanning down and across a row of the boarded-up, crumbling, abandoned row houses that have sadly become the dominant image of this city. The wail of a police siren, one of the media’s favorite audio cues for Baltimore, is heard in the distance.
But just as you start to fear Sohn is going to take the easy way out in image and sound to talk about the city in this 90-minute documentary, the strong voice of someone off camera is heard.
“I walked down the street with a reporter from a national network who looked around at all of these boarded-up properties and said to me, ‘Councilman, that riot really tore up this community, didn’t it?’ ”
On the word “councilman,” the screen shows the face of the speaker, Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes.
“And I said,” the veteran city leader continued, “‘Look again. Look at the boards on those homes. Do they look like they were tacked up there yesterday? No, they’ve been there 20 years, maybe longer. … The riot didn’t tear up the community. The condition of the community caused the uprising that we had.’ ”
And immediately, Sohn cuts to video from April 27, 2015, on the streets around Mondawmin Mall as protesters took on and, in some confrontations, routed the Baltimore city police with rocks, bottles and bricks. It was the start of one of the worst nights of looting, arson and property damage in the city’s history.
In just 41 seconds of screen time, Sohn sends two very important signals to viewers: First, that her film will go beyond national media perceptions of the city. And second, that the problems of Baltimore are deep, profound and decades in the making. They are older than the rotting wood and the crumbling mortar on those row houses. Don’t come looking for glib, easy, pop-up-after-the-uprising-cable-TV-report answers here.
That kind of finely honed opening, introducing and previewing what’s to come in the full production like an overture in a Broadway musical, is documentary filmmaking at its best. Sohn doesn’t always hit the high notes with such clarity through the rest of the film, and I have some problems with the one of the major story lines. But of all the special reports and documentaries done on Baltimore since the uprising, this is the head of the class.
One of the reasons for that is her exploration of civic leadership. Sohn looks at several young activists who might have what it takes to lead Baltimore to a brighter future. Among them are: Makayla Gilliam-Price, who founded the City Bloc youth justice organization while still in high school; Kwame Rose, who gained national attention when he told Fox News and its reporter Geraldo Rivera to get out of Baltimore in the wake of the uprising; Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle think tank, and Adam Jackson*, CEO of the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.
She tracks Gilliam-Price and Rose through much of the documentary in what feels like a search for what they might have learned from the death of Gray and the uprising that followed. Their narratives offer a hard-eyed look at how difficult a road it is from grassroots activism to civic leadership in Baltimore. Fo one thing, there are lots of obstacles but little institutional support.
“You’re homeless,” Danyelle Rosebrough, Rose’s mother, tells him during a family meal at Teavolve restaurant in Harbor East.
“I am not,” Rose replies.
“You’re broke,” Van Rosebrough, Rose’s father, says.
“Yes, you have no money,” his mother adds.
“Give me loan,” Rose fires back.
“No, the goal is to make the bird fly,” his mother says.
“I’m looking for someone to love me,” Rose says.
“We love you, but you can’t stay in my basement,” his mother counters.
Sohn is wise enough during this exchange to let the camera linger on a long look of bemused exasperation that Rose’s father gives him when the young man says he is not interested in material possessions.
(Rose is now a community liaison worker in Baltimore’s Department of Transportation.)
I also love the conversations Sohn includes between Gilliam-Price, who was still in high school at City College when the documentary was filmed, and her mother, Zelda Gilliam. Zelda Gilliam is concerned throughout the film that her daughter is harming herself educationally as she involves herself more and more in leading protests on the streets of Baltimore.
(In the summer of 2015, Sohn was holding workshops in Baltimore’s Penn North neighborhood aimed at helping residents tell their stories about the conditions that led to the uprising. I sat in on one of the sessions at the Penn North Recovery Center and talked with several residents featured in the documentary, including Gilliam-Price.)
The other major story lines in “Baltimore Rising” belong to Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Genard “Shadow” Barr, an addiction recovery specialist at the Penn-North Recovery Center whom HBO also identifies as a former gang member.
Barr’s story line embodies both the passion for change and the frustration so many feel about how to actually generate it in “Baltimore Rising.” His enthusiasm in trying to arrange a football game between Baltimore City Police officers and residents of Penn North in the film might seem misguided to some viewers given far more significant matters like another soaring homicide rate, the Department of Justice findings of widespread racism in the department and federal racketeering charges against detectives in a so-called elite unit. And, in some ways, it is. But you have to start somewhere in the process of police-community reconciliation — trivial as that somewhere might be given the troubled history of the police and their relationship to minority citizens of Baltimore.
The story line that I have the biggest problems with is the one featuring Davis, with backup roles for Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, chief of the Community Partnership Division, and Detective Dawnyell Taylor, lead investigator in the Freddie Gray homicide case.
I know the film is in large part about people in Baltimore trying to pull the community together in the wake of the uprising, but I do not feel ths film is tough enough on the police, given scandals like the one involving detectives in the gun unit and the way crime spiraled in Baltimore following the uprising. How were those police detectives and officers trying to pull our city together?
Sohn captures residents at meetings and hearings voicing their anger about the police, but she lets the public face of Davis as he is shown trying to connect with community figures like Barr become the dominant image of Baltimore Police in the film. It’s been two and a half years since Freddie Gray. I would like to see more evidence of any results of Davis’ efforts.
That said, here is why I still praise “Baltimore Rising.”
In the wake of the uprising, I was dismayed by the way journalists and documentary filmmakers came to Baltimore and seemed to look only for those words and images that fit the stereotypes in their heads. Filmmakers and journalists on the left saw the uprising as the failure of capitalism or the result of police oppression of African-Americans, while those on the right saw it as the result of police letting groups like Black Lives Matter intimidate them and run wild through the nation’s streets. Al Jazeera reports on the uprising, for example, cast it in the model of Middle East warfare with African-Americans as the Palestinians and Baltimore police as the Israeli army.
Sohn did not do that. She came here and listened to the residents of Penn North in those workshops. And then she used her reputation and skill as as a filmmaker to get a distribution deal with HBO that will allow some of the voices in Baltimore to be heard globally. I saw her with my own eyes during that period of listening and information gathering.
We might disagree on her depiction of the police and just how much rising is really taking place here today. But I celebrate her overall effort to bear witness and document the struggle on the part of many residents to move this city in the direction of better days.
If You Watch
"Baltimore Rising" premieres at 8 p.m. Nov. 20 on HBO.