In 2017, almost 350 people were murdered in Baltimore, according to FBI statistics. On a per capita basis its homicide rate out-bloodied Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and every other big American city.
Baltimore native Alex Long, a key figure in the documentary Charm City, knows the violent reality all too well. One of his sisters was murdered and, like other parents, he struggles just to keep his children safe.
“My youngest son, Joshua, going to school he witnessed 10 shootings. And seven of the shootings was homicides,” Long tells Deadline. “In one of the situations, he had to tackle a little girl to the ground so she wasn’t a victim. When you think of it like that, it’s almost a nightmare.”
Charm City, directed by Marilyn Ness, recently earned a place on the Documentary Feature Oscar shortlist. The film’s title comes from a nickname for Baltimore.
“It plays two ways in that town,” Ness explains. “For white communities, they call it ‘Charm City’, and for communities of color they call it ‘Harm City,’ and so we made our ‘C’ flicker onscreen in the title.”
Harm falls disproportionately onto residents of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, like the Middle East section where Long lives and works. In vérité style, Ness documents the leadership role Long and his mentor, Clayton “Mr. C” Guyton, have taken on to mediate disputes, impart positive values and improve lives. Long and Guyton counsel their neighbors to reject violence and embrace all they share in common.
“Let’s get back to helping each other out,” Long urges community members in one scene. “That’s what it’s going to take. Ain’t nobody going to help us. We really gotta help each other out.”
He underscores that theme in conversation with Deadline.
“Most times people tend to underplay the real power that real love has,” Long insists. “It’s not like trying to be mushy or nothing like that, but I’m honestly sick and tired of all the death and destruction that I see in my community. I know that’s the only way to get rid of it.”
While Long emphasizes each individual’s capacity to foster peace, Ness doesn’t ignore systemic issues that contribute to Baltimore’s problems. Through the use of text on screen, the filmmaker highlights how the city got to the place it’s in. One example: “Housing laws in the 1930s forced low-income Black Americans into ghettos scattered throughout Baltimore. Today, these neighborhoods have the fewest jobs, the lowest-ranking schools, the highest concentration of health problems, and the highest rates of poverty.”
That information lends a historical dimension to the story, but Ness keeps her focus above all in the present tense. Her characters include two police officers—one black, one white—and an African-American police captain, all of whom seem sensitive to rebuilding trust with the community. Baltimore, after all, is where Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man, died while in the custody of police in 2015, an event that triggered unrest and a spike in the murder rate.
“We wanted to understand what wasn’t working between police and citizens, but not just through the lens of that nightly news 30-second bite of some catastrophic moment of a death in police custody,” Ness says. “But rather to understand the day-in and day-out of what it meant to live in a place as a police officer or as a citizen who felt excessively policed.”
The film has been compared to The Wire, the HBO television series that painted a grim picture of Baltimore. But Ness sees a distinction.
“We felt like in The Wire they say the system will crush you and people matter less,” the director notes. “We felt like we were maybe The Wire 2.0 where we said the system is crushing, but the individual actions of people matter more.”
One of those people, unquestionably, is Long. His father was imprisoned when Alex was young and he grew up mostly in foster homes. In the film, he describes being falsely arrested at age 15 and incarcerated alongside adults. Despite those experiences, he has retained an inner moral compass, with support from Mr. C.
“I think people who have confronted unimaginable hardship are probably stronger than most of us, and when you walk through the fire, they decided what they were going to harden was love,” Ness comments. “We saw that immediately when we met these guys, Mr. C and Alex…We just felt their deep humanity and love.”
The situation in Baltimore appears to be improving somewhat, possibly due in part to the efforts of people like Alex and Mr. C. According to a new report, the murder rate in the city is on track to drop more than 7-percent in 2018.
Challenged though it may be, Long remains a champion of the city he has always called home.
“Baltimore is an amazing place, and if you can get away from all the disparity and different things that go on, you actually see the greatness,” he maintains. “If you actually get to sit down and meet and talk to the people, you wouldn’t want to leave.”