“Charm City,” a critically acclaimed documentary about community relations and the Baltimore Police Department, was directed by Marilyn Ness, a filmmaker from New York. It follows community activists, police officers and people just trying to make it through the day as they grapple with the violence and poverty afflicting Baltimore, before and after the arrest of the death of Freddie Gray. Here, Ness discusses her film.
When did you have the idea for this movie?
We first started to consider working on the film on what wasn’t working between the police and communities at the end of 2014. All we were seeing were these cataclysmic moments on the nightly news and you never really understood what was happening before and after that was allowing this sort of huge uptick — probably not in the occurrence, but in the public consciousness of these events.
We were specifically looking for a city that hadn’t had one of these high-profile deaths in police custody to see if you could get at what was broken. And we got access to the Baltimore Police Department towards the end of 2014. So we were on the ground in Baltimore by early 2015, four months ahead of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.
When did you identify what “Charm City” was actually going to be about?
So that’s always the trick with a cinéma vérité documentary film, where you’re watching life unfold in front of the lens. You don’t ever really know what it’s about until you get your footage into the edit room and see the stories that have unfolded over time.
Once we got into the edit room in 2017, we realized that we were on the ground for the before and after of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, and the unrest and uprising that was in the city, and that in many ways nothing had changed from before to after in the ways in which communities and police interacted.
And yet, while we were there all that time, we were also there as the homicide rate was ticking up, so we were really there in the three most violent years in recent history, with the people standing on the front lines of that violence. And we were really struck by the fact that although [the two sides] were diametrically opposed, they often talked about the problem in their city in very similar language, in terms of violence prevention and everyone feeling like it’s really the root causes underneath that really lead to violence: poverty, joblessness, homelessness, desperation.
It wasn’t really until we were in the edit room that we understood that we were dealing with a film that was fundamentally about violence as opposed to what specifically broke in between police and communities.
How did you identify the people who would become the main characters in this movie?
We started by trying to get the permission of the police department, because we thought that in any city that we went to that would be the hardest. Police officers don’t generally like to invite observational cameras in, much less after a high-profile death in police custody and the unrest that followed.
Once we did secure the permission of the BPD, we then set out to figure out what the community side of the story would be. And we intuitively felt that most of the interactions that go down between police and community members are happening on the street, and we really wanted to find a way to be on the ground level, on the street level. We began going to community centers all around Baltimore.
We went from place to place, but we just weren’t hitting the mark.
I heard about the Rose Street Community Center from a former Baltimore health commissioner, and popped in one day. I walked in right after a morning meeting, and so there was the throng of guys out front, and while we were there, there was a de-escalation in progress with the guys that had come to morning meeting.
We weren’t really sure what was happening, but we understood instinctively and immediately, these were the guys that are often caught up in a bad relationship, in an excessively policed relationship.
And then, while we were working with BPD through the years, we were always trying to figure out exactly how to approach that, because there’s lots of ways to film police officers. But we realized that really being on patrol felt really important — that again is on the street, on the ground level of where these interactions occur.
How much, if any, of this film is informed by your being Jewish?
I was born and raised in the Jewish community, and in the early years did actually tend to get put on to Jewish-themed films. I was a researcher on “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” I was an associate producer on a film called “America and the Refugees During WWII,” so I did kind of skew toward Jewish content. And then I moved away from a direct focus on that.
But all of my work is social justice-informed, and I do think that’s fully in the spirit of tikkun olam and finding ways to us to heal ourselves.
With those values in mind, making “Charm City,” though the subject matter is incredibly difficult, what we did was find people who, in their own way, not necessarily in a Jewish way, believe in tikkun olam, and that their individual actions can help make their communities and their world a better place. JN
‘Charm City’ is playing in select theaters. For more information, visit charmcitydoc.com.