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Anna Deavere Smith turns recollections of uprising, Freddie Gray into art in HBO film

Media critic David Zurawik talks about Tony and Pulitzer Prize nominee Anna Deavere Smith one-woman show on HBO 'Notes from the Field' on the death of Freddie Gray. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

The fallout from the death of Freddie Gray is never going to end for Baltimore police. Though none of the officers involved in Gray’s arrest was convicted in a court of law, the stain continues to spread and deepen in the court of public opinion and media memory.

That was the thought I had while watching Anna Deavere Smith’s “Notes from the Field,” which premieres on HBO Feb. 24. In the film version of her one-woman play, the first four characters Smith portrays are Baltimore figures involved in the struggle for social justice following Gray’s death.

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The film opens with Smith as Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president, brilliantly explaining public policy as simply the choices a society makes about where it spends its resources. That’s the sociology underpinning the forces that brought Gray and the Baltimore Police Department into conflict on the streets of Baltimore in April 2015.

Smith then goes on to portray Kevin Moore, who shot video of Gray’s rough arrest, talking about the dangers of a black man making eye contact with a police officer — as Gray did just before he was thrown into the back of a police van.

Next up, Smith takes the stage as Allen Bullock, the teenager in that iconic photo smashing a traffic cone through a car windshield.

“They beat me like four times,” Bullock says of the police. “This isn’t just because no Freddie Gray got killed. People die every day. Police be beating people, harassing people everyday.”

But the performer’s crowning achievement is in delivering Gray’s eulogy as the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple AME Church. It’s an inspired and transcendent moment in the HBO production, and it explains some of emotions that led to the uprising that night of Gray’s funeral in ways I did not appreciate at the time.

Baltimore police are depicted as being on the wrong side of history in this production — way on the wrong side. And that seems especially timely this month as the lid was torn off the cauldron of corruption that was the Gun Trace Task Force, a so-called elite unit that seemed to specialize in committing crimes instead of stopping them. Testimony to that effect led to the convictions of two members of that force Monday in federal court.

Smith, who was born and raised in Baltimore, takes the narrative of Gray as a victim of brutal and racist policing into the realm of art, a far deeper and more lasting place than the media and court proceedings where it was sounded and contested.

“Art takes time,” she said in a telephone interview with The Baltimore Sun. “The purpose of doing this play as a movie now is that film reaches more people than theater can. And beyond HBO, we’ll be doing community screenings in a lot of cities including Baltimore.” (That invitation-only screening and panel discussion with Smith is set for Feb. 22 at the Charles Theatre.)

“The first part of the play is an act unto itself,” Smith said of the film’s opening. “Kevin Moore brings our attention to what can happen if you make eye contact with the police. Then Allen Bullock brings our attention to what happens if you run from the cops. And then, Jamal in this incredibly amazing theological and literary way, really, brings it all together in terms of not just what is happening to us but what our responsibilities are as well.”

Bryant uses a New Testament text, the Gospel of Luke Chapter 7, which tells the story of Jesus stopping a funeral procession and raising a young man from the dead while his grief-stricken mother, a widow, looks on. The Baltimore pastor compares the grieving widow in Luke to Gray’s mother, and the young man in the coffin to Gray as he was boxed in by economic forces and the systemic racism of Baltimore.

“And the way he uses that chapter of Luke,” Smith said, “it just dazzles me. It’s the best of what the tradition of black preaching can do. I don’t know if he would call himself a liberation theologian … but I think it is coming out of that tradition ... The way he weaves together a political statement and a resistance statement with Christianity is gorgeous.”

What Smith does with the eulogy in the HBO film is more than gorgeous. It’s righteous, mighty and transformational. She captures the anger, energy and spirit of Bryant’s mesmerizing eulogy on the afternoon of the uprising.

And as you see the world though Bryant’s eyes, you understand the uprising in ways you never did before. At least that’s what happened to me as I listened to the eulogy, as voiced by Smith, in the film.

The pastor tells funeral-goers he’ll use his “sanctified imagination” to share the words that the young man said when Jesus brought him back to life.

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His words, they are told, were a message for black America: “No justice, no peace.”

And just in case viewers don’t get the connection between the words from the pulpit and the words heard on the streets of Baltimore, Kristi Zea, the film’s director, cuts from Smith to archival footage of the uprising itself with fires burning, marchers marching and the streets of Baltimore echoing with the call and answer of “No justice, no peace.”

And that’s only 23 minutes of the 90-minute film. But it’s more than enough to make me sing its praises.

“I don’t think what I do is mimicry,” Smith said of her performance. “The whole point is to shed a light after the fact. After the media have left, I come with my particular kind of flashlight, spend a lot of time looking really carefully and trusting that the people who are talking to me have absorbed the world around them and know that world better than I ever could. I’m witnessing them as witnesses of their society.”

That is the power that drives Smith’s performance to such insight and heights. She doesn’t come to an event like the uprising in Baltimore the way many news platforms and documentary filmmakers did, with a firmly fixed lens looking for images and words that would validate their point of view.

I wrote several columns in the year following the uprising about the way Al Jazeera came, for example, and saw Baltimore police as an occupying Israeli army with black residents as Palestinians. Fox News, meanwhile, locked onto a narrative that the boarded-up rowhouses, anger, despair and violence were the product of decades of failed Democratic leadership.

Smith came as an ethnographer might — not just asking questions and writing down the answers, but witnessing and listening until she saw the world through the eyes of the people talking to her.

And then, because she is also an outstanding actress, she was able to become those people onstage. But that kind of transformation is only possible because she understood them from the inside out.

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Quoting her grandfather, Deaver Y. Smith Sr., who founded a tea and coffee roasting business on Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue in 1906, Smith said, “If you say a word long enough, it becomes you. I’ve been trying to become America word for word. And that’s in absolute reaction to having grown up in Baltimore with its de facto segregation. I’ve been trying to claim this country in the best way I can.”

She claims a large piece of Baltimore’s uprising in “Notes from the Field.”

Art has a permanence rarely enjoyed by journalism. Smith’s 1993 play about the Los Angeles riots is now a PBS film being studied by school children.

I am willing to bet that 25 years from now, HBO’s “Notes from the Field” will be used in the same way by a new generation of students seeking to understand what happened in Baltimore in April of 2015, starting with the arrest of Freddie Gray.

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