The blue neon sign above the Manna Bible Baptist Church in Northwest Baltimore’s Central Park Heights says “Jesus Saves.” This morning, however, its only congregants are crew members checking in for the upcoming HBO show “We Own This City.”
Executive producer David Simon is once again shooting a Baltimore story. Similar to several of his other successful shows, such as “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “The Corner” and “The Wire,” this one tells a story about the intersection of crime and corruption in a city he knows intimately, one shadowed by forces seemingly out of its control.
Based on Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton’s book of the same name, the six-part “We Own This City” will chronicle the crooked cops and corrupt actions of the Baltimore Police Department’s now-disbanded Gun Trace Task Force. Simon, a former crime reporter for The Sun, is one of six executive producers of the show, which is shooting in Baltimore until mid-November. It’s expected to debut sometime next year.
“We Own This City” refers both to something a bail bondsman who served as a fence for a GTTF leader said in testimony about Baltimore officers, “They owned the city,” and a gang member’s description of the community: “We still run this s---. As a police officer, you can literally only do what we allow you to do. We — as far as the community itself, even the drug dealers — we run this city.”
On the day of The Sun’s recent set visit, it was shooting Day 37 of 76. A short ride on a nearly empty shuttle leads from the church to Gwynn Oak and Ridgewood avenues in nearby Howard Park in West Baltimore. That’s where a good chunk of the roughly 100-person production team — including makeup artists, set dressers and wardrobe — is working.
In the age of COVID-19, everything on set is different. Everyone wears masks, including the actors, who remove them only while filming. Lunch, which usually would be a large group affair, is instead served at individual tables with one chair each. People make conversation from several feet away or scroll through their phones as they eat. Shooting paused the last week of September after someone working on the show tested positive; it resumed last Wednesday.
Despite the pandemic, it has been a good year for the film industry in Baltimore, according to Debbie Donaldson Dorsey, director of the Baltimore Film Office.
“We had three major projects this year,” said Dorsey, referring to the Lifetime movie “Safe Space” and FX’s pilot for “The Spook Who Sat By The Door,” in addition to “We Own This City.” Combined, the projects generated an economic impact of $116 million, a measure that calculates how much additional revenue comes into the city’s coffers from crews spending money while working here.
The scene being shot this temperate morning involves a police chase ending in a car crash. Actors playing detectives Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal), Sean Suiter (Jamie Hector) and Ryan Guinn (Aristeo Kardi) jump out of a car, point their guns and shout commands at the suspects. Drugs are planted, arrests are made and an elderly man is killed in a collision.
The events resemble what happened to Umar Burley and Brent Matthews, who were chased by police in 2010 and arrested on false drug charges. During the chase, Elbert Davis, 86, was fatally injured. HBO confirmed that the scene re-creates what happened, albeit at another location.
The impact of the Gun Trace Task Force’s corruption and crimes is still being felt in Baltimore. The principal players, including ringleader Jenkins, are serving decades in prison.
“When you talk to locals, everyone has a story of interacting with GTTF,” said Reinaldo Marcus Green, director and one of the executive producers, during an interview under a white tent that’s outfitted with monitors showing the street where the scene will take place from different angles. “To be able to bring something like this to this city is a joy.”
Detective fiction writer George Pelecanos is a longtime creative partner with Simon and an executive producer of “We Own This City.” He hopes Baltimoreans come away from the new series with a sense of closure.
“Maybe there’ll be some answers as to why,” said Pelecanos, who was a producer on “The Wire.” “It’s not just a dirty cop show.”
Many of the other shows bearing Simon’s name explore systemic corruption and failures of institutions, such as “Generation Kill,” which premiered on HBO in 2008 and followed a Marine battalion during the first Iraq invasion, and the 2010 HBO show “Treme,” set amid political corruption in New Orleans.
But Baltimore is a favorite setting for Simon, although he insists his role in this production is one of a lesser among equals.
In an interview earlier this year, he said, “Kary [Antholis, one of the executive producers] and George have been good friends for years. He called George and said, ‘What’s going in Baltimore? You guys should do that.’
“George, magnanimously, said this is a chance to get back together with Ed [Burns, another executive producer who also worked on “The Wire”] and some new voices and do this as a miniseries. I get a lot of credit for being the ringleader, but this is all him [Pelecanos].”
Simon said he is finishing a script for a project to follow “We Own This City.” It will be an HBO show set in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He offers a few clues in a follow-up interview: “It’s not JFK-related. It’s much more specific, about 10, 15 years ago.”
The specifics of a setting are what inform and set apart much of Simon’s TV portfolio. Each of his Baltimore stories is known for its authenticity. “We Own This City” likely will be no different, considering the attention to detail at work on the set.
Baltimore Police Detective Andres Severino, who has been with the department for 11 years, is one of the consultants, along with Fenton. Severino is from New York, where many of his family members worked in law enforcement. Several things are unique about Baltimore policing, Severino said, including the way officers handle their guns.
“Being that it is Baltimore, the way we hold our guns is more tactical. We have an athletic, straightforward approach,” he said about pointing a gun at a suspect. “The older way of holding guns was not safe, because if you take a round under your armpit, you’re done. In Baltimore, we face it with our bulletproof vests forward.”
Jamie Hector is playing Suiter, who died from a gunshot to the head in 2017 while on duty. That shooting was initially ruled a homicide, though an outside panel determined he most likely took his own life and staged it to look like a homicide. Earlier that year, the FBI confronted Suiter with allegations that he planted drugs on a suspect, which he denied. Suiter was shot the day before he was to testify before a grand jury about the case.
Asked what he thought happened to Suiter, Hector said, “That’s a question I’m going to keep tucked away for the work.” He added, “He was the kind of person who knows how to do the work. He was willing to help out his fellow man. People I’ve talked to expressed how genuine he was.”
Hector played drug lord Marlo Stanfield on “The Wire.”
After multiple rehearsals in West Baltimore, it’s time to shoot. On a cracked asphalt road, two cars are about to crash at the intersection where a former Bengies Groceries sits, slowly being consumed by vegetation. Facing the spot where the action will happen is a small village of wardrobe handlers, extras, production assistants and others. Several open-air tents line the streets, stocked with equipment ranging from wires to multicolored tape and props to be used in later scenes.
After the crash, which is surprisingly loud, there is silence as the crew waits for an all-clear from the stunt team. Once given, relieved applause breaks out.
Emma Kaham-Gardner’s corner house offers a front-row seat to the action.
“I’m not used to all this, to see an accident with guns pulled,” said Kaham-Gardner, who has lived in her home for over 50 years. “I want everyone to see it [the show] and see my house,” she said, laughing.