Taking a stand on 'The Corner'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Charles S. Dutton lives on a 30-acre "farmette" in Howard County, about 20 miles and who-knows-how-many worlds away from the streets of East Baltimore where he spent the first 20 years of his life.

But those streets and those years will always be with Dutton. Especially now.

Tonight, his latest project, a six-part miniseries titled "The Corner," makes its debut on HBO. Although reluctant at first, Dutton eventually signed on to direct the entire six-hour series. Part of the reason was the opportunity it gave him to work in his hometown. "The Corner," based on a nonfiction book by former Sun writer David Simon and former city police detective Edward Burns, was shot here in Baltimore over three months last year. Another was the chance to work with a group of young African-American actors who could benefit from Dutton's experience and training.

But mostly, Dutton agreed to take it on because he was convinced only he could do it right. The story of a drug- infested West Baltimore neighborhood and the people who eke out their lives there, "The Corner" is unlike anything television has seen before. The drug pushers, the cops, the high-profile characters who have become staples of TV drama, are only peripheral to the story.

The key figures here are the users -- the men and women hooked on drugs so completely that their lives are little more than the struggle to get from one fix to the next.

Dutton knows these people, grew up with these people, could have become one of these people himself. At 49, he's not that far removed from the young man of the late '60s who tried every drug there was, who spent nights on streets just like this in East Baltimore, who spent seven years of his life in jail on charges of weapons possession and manslaughter.

"The Corner," he became convinced after reading some early scripts, was a story he had to ensure was told right.

Last week, Dutton sat down in his recently renovated house to discuss "The Corner." Dressed casually in a black pullover shirt and pants, surrounded by an extensive African art collection, he talked about filming the life of a West Baltimore neighborhood, about the social conditions that make this sort of hell on Earth, and about finding dignity in every human being and every human situation. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

On why he signed on: "I saw a pattern in the writing that excited me somewhat. In all four episodes I'd read, none of the stories were from the dealer. It was all about the addicts and their struggle, their perspective. I found that extremely refreshing. ... I said, 'OK, they've never done this before.' "

On why "The Corner" required special handling: "I had an idea in my head, how to make this series work. And I wouldn't want another director to come on in the middle of it and screw it up. I knew that, for this piece to be accessible to an audience, you had to discover the humanity of the thing. It couldn't look like 'Homicide' and 'NYPD Blue.' The style of it couldn't be that. It couldn't be that slick ... and particularly with the young black actors, you couldn't just let them do their hip-hop thing. What I thought it needed was an actor-director -- an actor-director who knew something about acting."

On overcoming the limits of TV: "I can't even watch television. 'NYPD Blue,' even 'Homicide' -- I thought that was the most generic cop show in the history of cop shows. And it probably had to do with the fact I'm from Baltimore. I know how real murders happen, all that stuff. The book was wonderful; the television series became just that, a TV series.

"But there was something about this piece. ... This could have been the most ugly, derogatory, racist, stereotypical, horrible-image six hours in television history. And interestingly enough, all of those [possibilities] are actually in the writing. Not intentionally, of course, because it's a true story. But written, shot and put out to the public, it could have been interpreted all kinds of ways."

On ensuring his vision prevailed: "What initially bothered me, and it bothered HBO, was the promo reel that the producers had put together. I said, 'We're not showing that anywhere.' In all fairness to them, maybe they didn't have enough time to think about it.

"The problem with it was, first thing, it had blues music in it. That was not my choice, to have blues music even at the beginning, or at the [end of each episode]. For one thing, blues is not urban music. And No. 2, [the performer] ain't John Lee Hooker.

"But the collage that was put together, with blues music throughout it, made it feel like, 'Oh, they're just having a happy-go-lucky time getting high and stealing refrigerators, being black, being poor, being ignorant. They're just having a good old time of it.' And all the scenes were negative; everything was stealing, stealing, stealing, dope, dope, dope, dope. There's much more diversity in the series than that.

"When I got it, I said, 'Who the hell put this together?' I said, 'I don't plan to show up anywhere where that is being shown.' So that has been buried where it should have been."

On being real: "We always debated on how graphic we'd get with the actual shooting of the drugs. I wanted to make [those scenes] as graphic as possible, just to have that uncomfortability with an audience; just to show that people have stuck themselves so many times that they don't have any veins left. In every possible way, I said, 'Let's not make these "Homicide" junkies, "NYPD Blue" junkies.' "

On getting actors to play it real: "Guys were showing me how great they could play junkies, and I said, 'No, no, no, just play a human being. Don't give me any mannerisms. Don't show me how good you can nod out or anything like that. Just simply be a person who gets up every day and your only purpose in life is to chase that drug.' "

On human dignity: "Every junkie out there, before that monster took over, was at one time a promising, vibrant, full-of-potential human being. It might have been just from

the time they were born to age 15, but during those 15 years, that person could have been anything they wanted in their life. I'm sure their parents had big dreams for them, regardless of their environment, before that monster took over.

"That human being has been totally dwarfed by that addiction dinosaur. It's just a question of trying to find that person. When I look at my sister [a recovering cocaine addict], I don't know who the hell she is. The person I remember 20 years ago is not that person I'm looking at now."

On luck: "I was never into drugs. I tried everything once, twice, three, four, five times. I tried heroin when I was 15 years old in 1966. I OD'd the first time I shot heroin. I had some good-enough buddies around me that brought me back with what they call a street remedy. They forced a two-pound box of Morton's salt down my throat, and they put ice on my testicles. It wasn't the salt that woke me up, it was the damn ice.

"But my body just didn't mesh with drugs. When everybody else was high on heroin, if I took it, I was like, 'I don't like this, this feeling.' When I did cocaine, everybody was buzzing around, I was sneezing every two minutes, I had to go to the bathroom. If I smoked a joint, I'd stay in the corner paranoid as hell.

"But then ... my generation got into it heavily in '68 and '69, as far as shooting [heroin]. Sixty-nine was the year I was arrested, and I didn't come up for air until 1976. And by the time I got back, the neighborhood was completely gone. It was a simple decision. You want to walk into this? So it was easy for me to back out of it.

"That's not to say that I would have been any stronger than anybody else had I not been away. I might have succumbed to it like everybody else did. Being removed from the situation definitely helped. But I might have succumbed to it. I might have been dead, strung-out on drugs, or doing life in prison, had I not been gone those seven and a half years. So it was meant for me to escape it, I guess."

On the "war on drugs": "Short of legalizing heroin and cocaine for documented addicts, ... which we know will never happen, America is never going to do anything about it. Because if they did a real war on drugs, they would have to dismantle what they've already got up and running, and that's the prison industry. And that money has already been counted, split up and agreed upon. The prison is being planned for the 17-year-old black kid who's not even born yet. There's a cell being planned for him. And that's an industry now."

On personal responsibility: "Any drug addict today, I classify as a fool. The dangers of that stuff today is tenfold to what it was 30 years ago. But it is an addiction; it is a disease. Believe me, I've gone through it with two siblings in the last 25 years, and it is definitely a disease.

"The series wasn't [denying] personal responsibility at all. But everybody's not strong, everybody can't get it together. God, if everybody had it together, we'd be in a utopia."

On hard choices: "The 25-year-old black kid who's already doing life without parole, and the 16-year-old who's about to go down that road -- you're at the point where you have to shut the door on those two generations to be able to save the 4-year-old kid. Because if you spend too much time on those two generations, you look around, the 4-year-old is 16. That's the horrible cycle of it.

"When we were shooting 'The Corner,' the saddest part was watching the little kids come around, excited about the movie, and you could see them accepting their lot in life. That this was their world, this is what they were born into, this is all that they had, this is all that they could achieve, all that they could aspire to. And that's it. The ceiling is set over their heads."

On fighting the fight: "I did an interview with someone from Boston, and they said they agreed with a statement from the movie 'Bulworth,' that the only form of capitalism that's allowed to flourish in those neighborhoods is the drug trade. She agreed with that. And I said, 'See, that's just the problem. You can never succumb to that belief. The minute that idea is saturated throughout the entire community, then it is destined for doom.' "

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