On the streets of Baltimore, shooting is rampant, the murder rate is approaching an all-time high and the distrust of the police is at a fever pitch. With nerves frayed and neighborhoods in distress, dedicated community leaders, compassionate law-enforcement officers and a progressive young city councilman try to stem the epidemic of violence. Filmed over three tumultuous years covering the lead up to, and aftermath of, Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, CHARM CITY is an intimate cinema verité portrait of those surviving in, and fighting for, the vibrant city they call home. Directed by renowned documentary producer Marilyn Ness (Cameraperson; Trapped; E-Team).
In the heart of Baltimore’s Eastern District, made famous by The Wire for its blighted row houses which were home to the violent drug trade, sits the Rose Street Community Center. Clayton “Mr. C” Guyton, its founder and patriarch, has earned the respect of local gang members, drug dealers, and those just trying to survive in the neighborhood known as the “Middle East.” The beating heart of Rose Street, Mr. C shows us the power of empathy and humanity in battling years of community-wide trauma. Together, Mr. C and his Rose Street crew kept their four square-blocks free of homicides for 18 months. But when Mr. C is hospitalized, Rose Street sees a sudden uptick in violence, and lays bare the fragility of the peace Mr. C keeps. To support Rose Street Community Center please make your checks payable to Rose Street Community Center and mail them to: 821 N. Rose Street Baltimore, MD 21205. Please note “CHARM CITY” in the memo line.
Alex Long is one of Mr. C’s many “sons,” not by birth but by choosing. Alex has long been a product of the Baltimore streets. His father was in prison by the time Alex was six, and he was shuttled into foster care by the time he was eight. Alex found a home at Rose Street, and helps Mr. C with his homegrown programs including neighborhood trash collection, gang mediation and his own brand of de-escalation training. And though Alex formalizes his role as a neighborhood peacekeeper by joining Safe Streets, the Baltimore equivalent of the better-known Chicago Interrupters, we learn this cannot protect him from the violence engulfing Baltimore.
This 16-year police veteran knows what it’s like to grow up on the hard streets of Baltimore. Dressed in her uniform, she seems an unlikely ally in understanding the lasting effect of trauma in her community; but we learn her empathy runs deep. A rising star in the department, and recently promoted to Major, we witness this mother and grandmother attempt to restore the image of police officers in the Southern District both to the citizens she serves and the officers she mentors. All the while, we witness the toll taken on those who have pledged to be police officers in Baltimore.
Baltimore born and bred—the ideal candidate according to most experts trying to heal a police/citizen relationship that has long been fractured — Officer Eric Winston began patrolling the Southern District in the days after the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Watching Winston work, the audience sees the long-term consequences of dealing with trauma day after day and begins to understand that perhaps policing isn’t really working for the police either.
Officer John Gregorio has served in the Southern District with distinction winning multiple commendations, including the Officer of the Year Award for his six years of service. Wanting to be a police officer since he was a young boy, Officer Gregorio left his life in the suburbs and confronts the entrenched hardships in Baltimore. He is keenly aware that his uniform carries a heavy weight; he bears the burden of the actions of all of his brothers and sisters in blue and he is considered the face of government to most people he sees throughout the day. With so many of his calls falling beyond the scope of policing, and reliant on other agencies to provide the support so often needed, Officer Gregorio must live with the consequences of a system that routinely fails the people it is intended to serve.
The youngest City Council member ever elected in Baltimore, Brandon Scott pledged to serve his community through politics since he was a young boy growing up in a violent part of Baltimore. As we follow him through the three most violent years in recent Baltimore history, we watch as Scott uses his position of power to hold the police — and the rest of the city’s agencies — accountable. His ethos is a constant drum beat: “Violence is a public health issue and it is not for the police alone to solve.” A bridge-builder and innovator, Scott is trying everything he can imagine to change the entrenched positions that drive the incarceration and violence rates that plague Baltimore.