It was the first Sunday of summer. Parents were anxious, police officers were prepared and teenagers like “Mouse” were determined to be part of “the ride.” Dirt bike riders sped down the streets of West Baltimore popping wheelies and impressing the crowd. The scene could have come from Baltimore’s streets, but it’s in the new movie “Charm City Kings.” Released Thursday night, the highly anticipated HBO drama set in the city has been praised by critics for its authentic riding and photography.
But riders and those familiar with the Baltimore dirt bike culture are giving it mixed reviews.
For some, like 29-year-old dirt bike rider Darius Glover, the movie sparked a sense of nostalgia about his introduction to dirt bikes. Another rider, 14-year-old Damon Ray-Harrison‚ liked the character “Blax” for the way he embodied the dirt biking spirit, but the teen thought the connection between dirt bike riders and drugs was an overstep.
“The movie made dirt bikes look bad because there’s drugs, guns and violence … dirt biking is about having bonds," Damon said.
And for others, like advocate Brittany Young — who founded B360, a nonprofit that uses dirt bikes to attract students of color to coding and other STEM fields — the movie missed a chance to tell a broader narrative about Baltimore.
“We need to see more stories about Black ingenuity and less about Black struggle,” said Young, whose program also works to make dirt bike riding safer.
Dirt bikes have long been a part of Baltimore culture. For many young Black riders, the speed and tricks have brought joy and a sense of freedom. In some neighborhoods, gathering on stoops to watch the riders is a ritual of summer. But in some cases, dirt bikes have become a safety issue in the city, with riders dangerously buzzing through traffic and causing accidents including deaths. In 2018, dirt bikes were outlawed, and hundreds have been seized by city police.
Representatives for HBO and the “Charm City Kings” production declined to comment for this article. The film won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at the Sundance Film Festival.
Baltimore native Jada Pinkett Smith, her husband Will Smith and James Lassiter executive produced the film through their company Overbrook Entertainment. Pinkett’s brother Caleeb Pinkett, the company’s president and the film’s producer, said he understood some of the criticism, but that he was trying to show some of the realities for young Black boys.
“Yes, there is some negative, and yes, there are drugs and though it’s not pretty, it’s still the reality. If there were no negative, it wouldn’t be that honest,” Pinkett said. “This movie is not about dirt bikes or its culture. This is a movie about a young man and choosing which direction he’s going to choose. That’s the bigger picture.”
The film (warning: spoilers ahead) chronicles the coming of age of “Mouse,” a Black teenager from West Baltimore. He spends free time working at the animal hospital with hopes of one day becoming a veterinarian. But when he is with his seventh-grade posse, the three fantasize about zipping down the streets on their dirt bikes.
The sport is frowned upon by his mother and his mentor.
Despite this, Mouse and his friends are persistent about getting a bike. He even finds another mentor, Blax, portrayed by rapper Meek Mill, who recruits Mouse to work at his mechanic shop and earn a dirt bike.
But because Mouse feels a responsibility to help his mother pay rent, he later sells drugs for a dirt bike gang.
That plot point didn’t sit well with Young.
“Drugs should not be synonymous with dirt biking,” said Young. “We’ve been working so hard … I wish people would stop with the narrative.”
This past Saturday, Young gathered dirt bike riders and students from her program for a watch party and virtual panel afterward to discuss the film. The group, including older and young riders, talked about a number of topics: the portrayal of Black women in the film, the relationship between police officers and dirt bike riders, and the importance of telling untold stories in cities like Baltimore.
Back in 2018, when news of the film came out, Young reached out to Sony Pictures Entertainment and its producers to connect them with riders. She wanted them to get an accurate picture of Baltimore’s dirt bike riders. She says she was not paid; she did it as a community representative.
Later, HBO took over the movie. In August, some of the riders, including Damon, shared their personal stories for promotion of the film in a campaign called “Why I Ride.”
Young was grateful for that inclusion. But she believes filmmakers could have presented a truer, more complex picture.
“This was a chance to present an alternative narrative … Mouse can want to be a veterinarian and be a dirt bike rider at the same time,” said Young, who is an engineer.
“It makes it seem as if [Baltimore] parents or the city overall doesn’t care about its children,” Young added. “Most dirt bike riders have jobs, money and parents who invest in them.”
Since 2017, Young has worked with more than 7,000 children and adults across the city to empower her students to know they don’t have to choose between success and dirt bike riding.
One of those students, Damon, has been in B-360 since he was in the fourth grade.
“I knew I wanted to ride a dirt bike since my dad bought me one when I was 6,” said Damon. He said Young taught him about engineering and coding.
The teen did love to see the mentorship and bonding in the movie. That’s what Young wants to pass down to the younger generation, and it’s what Meek Mill’s character Blax does for Mouse in the movie.
“Meek Mill’s character inspired me to push harder and to prevail,” Damon said. “He never gave up on Mouse.”
Glover also savored the mentorship in the movie, and in his life.
“My brother taught me how to ride, the mechanics taught me how to fix my bike and my parents bought me my own dirt bike after getting good grades in school,” said Glover, an entrepreneur who has been riding in Baltimore since he was 7. When Glover was 15, he was in a serious motocross race accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He is now the first paraplegic motocross racer in the American Motorcyclist Association.
“[Blax] teaching him how to fix his bike reminded me of when I started to ride and realizing that I had a sense of responsibility," said Glover.
But Young says she will have to fight even harder now to counter the movie’s negative portrayal of riders.
“We need more spaces for dirt bike riders, and programs like ours need more investment for this city to fully thrive," Young said. "We can all work together.”
Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture.