The balanced, emotionally charged, and indispensable documentary Charm City, which screens in Toronto this weekend as part of the seventh annual Human Rights Film Festival, should be mandatory viewing for anyone looking to get into community activism, policing, or politics. Although it unfolds in one of America’s most dangerous cities, the lessons learned in Charm City about basic human dignities, poverty, and what defines safe and strong communities can and should be applied everywhere in the world.
Starting in July of 2015 and ending in April of 2017, director Marilyn Ness documented one of the most violent eras in the history of Baltimore, Maryland from several different perspectives. Ness spends time in the streets with Clayton “Mr. C” Gunton, a former corrections officer who now runs a community centre, and Alex Long, an ex-con who now works with an organization designed to stop violence from escalating. Ness follows three cops to get their perspective on Baltimore’s escalating crime problem: black, female Captain Monique Brown, relative rookie officer Eric Winston (who’s also black and grew up in the city, like Brown) who routinely patrols “the overdose capital of Maryland,” and white officer John Gregorio, who admits to still experiencing some culture shock from serving in the city and having grown up in a small town. The filmmaker also has access to municipal political and budgetary meetings through the participation of Brandon Scott, an enthusiastic lawmaker who made history as the youngest person ever elected to Baltimore’s city council.
Although the subjects of Ness’ almost entirely verite documentary openly voice their sometimes differing feelings and opinions about Baltimore’s drug and violence epidemics at great length, Charm City hits with the bracingly real force and honesty of Frederick Wiseman film. It’s exceptionally well edited, with all three aspects of Baltimore life depicted in both positive and negative lights, but nothing here is being skewed. If all viewers know about Baltimore going into Charm City comes from watching The Wire, they’ll have their eyes opened even wider and hearts tugged on tighter by Ness’ resoundingly empathetic work. All of Ness’ subjects have seen firsthand the fallout of shootings, drug use, child abuse, poverty, and various other injustices that could turn human beings hard, but they constantly remember what they’ve learned along the way, how those lessons made them feel, and what they need to do to keep their streets and communities as safe as possible when it seems like no one else in the world cares about the people of Baltimore.
Even though Charm City ends with a gut punch that shows the city and its people still have a long and sometimes painful road ahead of them, Ness’ film illustrates that anyone who cares about their community can be a low-key hero if they want to be.
Charm City screens at the Human Rights Film Festival on Saturday, December 8, 2018 at 6:30 pm at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Subject Monique Brown will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A.
Check out the trailer for Charm City: