The Charm City of documentary filmmaker Marilyn Ness’ perceptive and measuredly hopeful film of the same name is not the Baltimore of popular stereotype or national media proclamation.
Instead, it’s the one anyone who works and lives in the city knows well, the one that gives one hope, even while causing one pause.
Shot over three years, beginning just a few months before Freddie Gray’s April 2015 death while in city police custody, “Charm City” watches, not at all dispassionately, as community residents and police live and work on some of Baltimore’s roughest streets.
In an engrossing example of cinema-verite filmmaking, Ness and her cameras — Baltimore Sun alum Andre Lambertson is the film’s director of photography — are an astonishing fly-on-the-wall presence. Not that the filmmaker goes entirely unnoticed; at times, the film’s subjects are clearly addressing someone outside the frame. But that presence never intrudes on what happens, and emotional honesty is captured on film, as good men and women struggle to reclaim their streets.
Although “Charm City” offers no easy answers, it does offer up a handful of people whose example could lead the city out of the quagmire. They include Councilman Brandon Scott, the youngest person ever elected to the city council (and recent running mate to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Shea), whose frustrations with entrenched positions on both sides are on display; and police officers Monique Brown, Eric Winston and John Gregorio, whose efforts to bring a human touch to their work on the streets seem doomed from the get-go.
Especially heartbreaking is Winston’s encounter, late in the film, with a young boy whose grandfather is at his wit’s end. Though the encounter is shot from a distance, Winston’s frustration at this no-win encounter — a police officer’s street cred isn’t exactly high these days, and it’s unclear whether the youngster even wants to be helped — is palpable.
But the most vivid encounters in the film arise out of East Baltimore’s Rose Street Community Center, where former correctional officer Clayton Guyton, known to everyone as Mr. C, holds court. Charismatic, clear-headed and with a heart that everyone in the neighborhood recognizes (and, happily, cherishes), Mr. C buoys people’s spirits and hopes almost through force of will alone. One of those thankfully affected is Alex Long, who serves as his right-hand and, when personal tragedy strikes, shows a strength of spirit that may be the most promising feature of the entire film.
“Charm City” does not offer a balanced view of the Baltimore it puts on screen; nay-sayers clearly are not welcome in the world Ness captures. Perhaps there’s fault to be found there. Certainly, unrelenting despair exists on the city’s streets; certainly, there are implacably bad eggs on both sides, with little interest in making things better (or, perhaps, convinced that will never happen).
Which is not to say “Charm City” is naive, only aspirational. And thank goodness for that.