WASHINGTON -- For the occasion Fran Boyd of Baltimore wore a black suit peppered with silver specks and big, gold earrings and sat at the table marked RESERVED at the very front where she could see her own life on the theater-sized movie screen.
It was an odd enough occasion yesterday afternoon, a publicity event for an HBO mini-series staged in a U.S. Senate hearing room and attended by members of Congress, by Kweisi Mfume, head of the NAACP, by drug policy people, show-biz people, reporters. And by Fran Boyd, who once lived and still works in one of West Baltimore's most notorious drug-infested neighborhoods.
Boyd, with her gold-toothed smile and shy manners, was one human face that tends to get lost in the endless stream of programs, policies, speeches and debates surrounding the continuing social and economic disaster of drug addiction and crime.
At the very least, the people who wrote and produced "The Corner" -- a six-hour HBO production running on six successive Sundays starting April 16 -- are hoping that the dramatic series based on the book of the same name adds a human dimension to a discussion too often conducted in abstract terms.
Published in 1997, the book by former Sun reporter David Simon and former Baltimore homicide detective Edward Burns tells actual events that unfolded in 1993 in the neighborhood around West Fayette and Monroe streets. The book combined a novelistic narrative with commentary ripping U.S. drug policy for its short-sighted focus on law enforcement, blaming the drug epidemic on social conditions that persistently isolate poor black people.
"It was good, on target," Boyd said after she and about 100 other people in the big hearing room with the high ceiling watched Episode 3, "Fran's Blues," an hourlong introduction to the world in which Boyd lived before she went into treatment and quit drugs. She's been clean five years now and works as a community outreach worker for a drug treatment program in West Baltimore.
It was the first time Boyd had seen an entire episode of the series, which was shot in East Baltimore last summer under the direction of Baltimore native Charles S. Dutton of "Roc" fame.
She acknowledges that it was "strange" and "a little painful" watching herself as portrayed by actor Khandi Alexander trying to raise her son, DeAndre McCullough (Sean Nelson), amid the turmoil and decay of West Baltimore. Violence seems always bound to erupt, as one man is beaten brutally for stealing a drug stash and three others, including DeAndre's father, Gary, are threatened with a beating after stealing metal scrap from a junk yard. Even an a-rab's horse is beaten in an argument between two men that erupts for reasons never made clear.
Boyd herself appears briefly in Episode 3 as a receptionist at the drug treatment center where Boyd, portrayed by Alexander, shows up to enter the program. In that scene, the character Boyd is told that there's been a misunderstanding, that she's a week early, that there's not a bed to spare. Having already announced to friends that she's quitting drugs, she is forced to return to her home in despair.
It's one of many points in the series that will inevitably raise questions about U.S. drug policy. The screening yesterday was an occasion to air criticisms that by now have become only too familiar: too much money spent on law enforcement at the expense of drug treatment, too little recognition of drug addiction as a health problem, too many laws skewed against the poor and favoring powerful forces at the heart of the global drug industry, too few jobs for people coming out of drug treatment.
"We have mothers who are begging for help," said U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, and a liberal who believes "the government should and must spend money" on drug treatment.
Mfume, who grew up on the sort of streets depicted in "The Corner," said the HBO series "has given us a mirror. You either look into it or you look away. I don't know how you can look at this and not see the tremendous desire of addicts to do better."
Dutton said at first he was not interested in directing "The Corner" because he "assumed, and incorrectly, that it was another typical standard fare 'in the hood' movie."
Reading a few scripts convinced him otherwise. The scripts showed life "from the perspective of addicts" and did not glamorize drug dealers or violence. The challenge, he said, was "how do you put the humanity into this thing. How to get an audience that is totally separated from this way of life to feel anything."
If Episode 3 accurately represents the whole series, it does this by showing people in dimensions. The characters are drug addicts, but also parents and friends. Their lives revolve around getting the next hit, but the people are also funny and warm. Many are struggling to get out. Some have hope, some cannot see past the horror around them.
Simon, executive producer and writer of the series with David Mills, said "HBO is going to a lot of trouble to position this as something that has political import."
He wasn't so sure about that notion.
"I don't believe in politics, do you?" Simon said. "My hope is very limited." If the series shows the people "as palpably human as they are, that's victory."