“Charm City,” a PBS documentary focusing on some of the citizens who are trying to save Baltimore one day at a time from its culture of crime and corruption, could hardly come at a better time.
Don’t miss it tonight at 10 on PBS where it airs as part of the Independent Lens series. (Locally, on Maryland Public Television.)
Those of us in Baltimore and viewers across the country need to be reminded of the good and heroic people living here as the deals made by Mayor Catherine Pugh and some of her cronies to pay her hundreds of thousands of dollars for a series of self-published “Healthy Holly” children books bring her, City Hall and, by extension, all of us who live here ridicule and contempt on national TV, in newspapers coast to coast and across social media sites galore.
I have written twice in recent weeks about this documentary. This makes it three times. I love documentaries, and I write about them a lot. But I cannot remember in all my years at The Sun writing three times about any single film in this short a space of time. Nor can I remember being so moved by one.
Part of it is timing, with the film getting its PBS premiere on the heels of The Sun exposing Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” deals with the University of Maryland Medical System, where she was a member of the board, and other businesses and people. Seeing how hard some unsung heroes, like those featured in the film, work and how fervently they keep the faith in Baltimore even as their leaders betray it makes my head feel like it is going to explode each time I watch or write about “Charm City.”
But the most important part for viewers and citizens deciding whether to watch tonight is that “Charm City” is not only a superb and moving work of non-fiction filmmaking, it is also one of those socially conscious and totally righteous documentaries with the power to help spur reform. And, man, do we need reform in Baltimore now.
As I discussed in depth in a recent column, the film’s director Marilyn Ness and her team worked like ethnographers, burrowing deeply into the culture of the Rose Street community in Baltimore for three years to chronicle residents there, along with some police officers and City Councilman Brandon Scott laboring against tremendous hardships and odds to try to make Baltimore better in the wake of the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.
The film is shot with a from-the-ground-up point of view that puts viewers in the streets and row houses with the citizens of Rose Street. One member of that filmmaking team is Baltimore cinematographer John Benam.
As I watched Baltimore burn on the night of Freddie Gray’s funeral four years ago this month, the only comfort I could find was in the thought that the city I loved could not possibly ever again look worse to the world than it did at that profoundly sad moment. But recent events proved me wrong.
This is a visually powerful film with imagery that will remind you of HBO’s “The Wire” — only it’s harsher.
In my column on Baltimore’s deeply troubled image, I also wrote, “There are moments when it seems as if Ness is filming in a Third World country, the living conditions are so challenging and poor. And that’s depressing.
“But the film is also inspirational in the determination, tenacity, hope, integrity and sense of community among the people on Rose Street who pick up dust pans and brooms every day and try to clean up the poverty, decay and neglect that surrounds them.
“There are heroes here in the biggest sense of that word going back to the ancient Greeks. Clayton ‘Mr. C’ Guyton, who founded the Rose Street Community Center, is one them. Alex Long, a protege of Guyton’s, is another. To me, Long is the hope for the future of our beleaguered city.”
Focus on Guyton, Long and the residents of the Rose Street community as you watch, and you will feel hope for the future of our city.
But you will also feel outrage for City Hall and where we are sadly mired today.