Marilyn Ness focuses on making a difference in ‘Charm City’

Documentarian Marilyn Ness is arguably best known for her work as a producer for films such as Cameraperson, Trapped, 1971 and E-team. Many of her films have focused on how some of societies darkest times (trap abortion laws, government corruption, and international human rights violations) have also brought led to heroes willing to fight the good fight. Her new film Charm City, her third as a director, takes a similar approach this time looking at the rising violence (including police brutality) in one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. But it’s also a film about those within the community who are trying to fight the good fight, including the police officers who patrol the streets every day and community organizers trying to promote change from within. Ness takes an on the ground, verite approach to the issue, and actively tries to avoid the sensationalistic approach we too often see in the news.

Lesley Coffin: The issues the film addresses are big, nationwide problems we see in the news all the time. But you choose to really focus on one community. What motivated you to take that narrow approach to these big issues? 

Marilyn Ness: We didn’t intend to take that approach at first. But the unique world of verite filmmaking means your plans will change during production. What we were trying to do, we knew patience would be a virtue. We started working on this in 2014 when there were a number of people of color dying in police custody. And they’d only get the 30-second treatment on the evening news. What we were wondering was what was happening day to day after these events took place. Specifically, what was life like for the police and community activists who worked in those communities. So we had a mission to head out and ended up filming during the three most violent years in Baltimore. The film took a right turn when we realized the film was about violence, not necessarily the divide between communities and the police. In terms of the subjects, I knew I wanted to be on the ground with the people living this day in and day out. I knew I wanted to be with the police who patrolled these areas and the community activists struggling to make a difference. We went through four police commissioners and two mayors in the course of filming, so it became clear to us pretty early on that when you just looking at the top, you do get to the gradual level of life in these areas. So with my predominantly local crew and co-producer from Baltimore, we set about finding the people who were trying to do right in the world they lived in. And they went from community center to community center, until we found Mr. C. And that’s when we saw something really happening there. And in terms of the police, we worked with them to find the officers who were really committed to protecting the people in that community. At the time we didn’t know Captain Brown’s personal story, it wasn’t until we started filming that she choose to divulge that information. So the fact that we had Alex Long, the violence interrupter in his own community, and Monique Brown, a police officer who grew up the same, having them in the same film proved to be very important to the film.

Lesley Coffin: Did you notice a dramatic change in how the police and the people in the community reacted to each other which compared to the national news reported it?

Marilyn Ness: We started four months before the death of Freddie Graves in police custody. We had access to the police before that happened and stayed long after the news crews left. It was weird to be on the ground during that event, and see firsthand the unrest that happened immediately after. We saw the unrest in the city of Baltimore, but nothing really changed in the area we were focusing on. The police who patrolled there every day were still coming to patrol. People were still concerned about transportation and safety. Mr. C remained this extremely important resource for people and an example of how to live. It was remarkable to see that things didn’t change their daily lives, which is why the film doesn’t address the national news as much. We were focusing on the day to day, not the news cycles. The news cycle didn’t stick around to see how the city cleaned up or addressed the issue of systemic racism. That wasn’t part of the narrative, but Baltimore tried to find a way forward.

Lesley Coffin: I believe it was Mr. C who said that if cameras weren’t here, things would have played out differently one night during a confrontation. Did that happen a couple of times?

Marilyn Ness: We acknowledged that a couple of times before Mr. C even said it, we know there is an effect when cameras are filming events play out. We weren’t trying to catch people doing things because most of the time a camera will make people change their behavior. So we sought out people who were already trying to do their best and wouldn’t be concerned with a camera following them. We weren’t interested in doing so-called gotcha journalism. That wasn’t the point. So a few times the camera did change behavior or we were asked to shut them off, but I think that symbolically, the camera matters. Alex Long found value in being heard and seen, and we reflected that back to him. I think people appreciated that Mr. C was being acknowledged for all the good he’s done for his community and that he doesn’t take a destructive path when a tragic situation occurs. Seeing that, being witness to that can make a difference. 

Lesley Coffin: So much of the film really addresses a national issue regarding the place black men have in this community, the fact that they are statistically the most likely demographic to be killed in an area like this and feel endangered. Did people address the issue of gender with you the same way they would discuss race?

Marilyn Ness: It’s true that black men are more likely to be killed than any other demographic, but that comes from many factors. Many are systemic problems, including poverty, the lack of upward mobility, the lack of transportation. The fact that 50% of black men from these neighborhoods had been incarcerated at some time in the 2000s. Having such a high rate of incarceration, people on parole or people with a record leads to a lack of choice. And that’s when choices are made which put them at greater risk of violence. Everyone realizes this is a systemic problem, across cities all over America. But we did notice that in many cases, the women were taking on the role of being the moral centers of this community. And we certainly noticed that violent interactions were often testosterone driven. The police engaging in violent confrontations are predominantly male, those people committing violent crimes are predominantly male. And that’s the reason we choose to focus more on men who face these issues directly and are trying to make positive changes.

Lesley Coffin: When you listen to community activists addressing systemic issues, their arguments seem so rational and it’s hard to understand why they wouldn’t try to put these plans into action. Did you hear any arguments against these plans, even those which weren’t making sense to you, to explain why things weren’t moving forward?

Marilyn Ness: It’s such a deep problem in these cities that they’re now behind the eight ball. Violence seems just be spiraling, which makes it very hard to convince people that it’s worth it to reallocate money to serve a community which seems from the outside to be failing. I understand the challenging leadership faces, even though I don’t agree with it. What we found however is, when you have something like Safe Street, we see that they work and help the surrounding areas. But the problem is, it’s easier to put 40 million into the police budget, rather than fund a dozen smaller organizations. It’s just a huge logistical problem and lack of motivation. Society’s kind of decided, we’re okay with letting the criminal justice system solve all the problems we have, including drug addiction and homelessness. But there are a lot of people who want to see that change. We opened the film in Baltimore and there was a group of social workers there who were moved to tears. And they raised their hands to tell Mr. C, we are your foot soldiers, we’re here to help you. 

Lesley Coffin: There is a point in the film when Mr. C is ill due to his history with diabetes. And the impact his lack of presence has on the community seems palatable. There is mention of an increase in crimes, even a possible increase of homicides. Did you feel that void when he was gone?

Marilyn Ness: There were people who opened the doors and would run meetings, but Mr. C is this invaluable presence, he shows up every single morning and is there as this constant resource to the community. Something happens in the middle of the night, and he’ll show up. And there were people trying to step in and fill his void, but these are fragile ecosystems in these communities. After this happened, people started really talking about how to create a succession plan for Mr. C. Every community wants to have someone like that, but they are lucky to have him. And he’s going to have to be the one to train and prepare the next generation, so it doesn’t have to all fall on him.

Copyright 2018, Lesley Coffin

Images courtesy of Big Mouth Productions

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