Halfway through Charm City, Marilyn Ness' documentary of Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death in police custody, the camera captures downtown's Transamerica Building and baroque City Hall as night descends, lit up and towering beyond the boarded-up townhouses of more troubled streets. It's a stark perspective on how money and policies have failed the city's poorest.
Once a thriving American seaport and manufacturing center, Baltimore has been in many ways abandoned, its institutions and many neighborhoods in decline as beleaguered and often corrupt police force contend with the consequences of drugs and unemployment.
Viewers already know some of this from The Wire, the acclaimed HBO series set in these same streets, but Ness' film is a close-up of stubborn reality now. Daily life is wrecked by fear, stoked by shootings and death. Support is thin, so comebacks prove vulnerable. Drug dealers are emboldened, for example, when community leader Clayton Guyton is hospitalized and the rag-tag group he rallies each morning to clean and monitor the streets mostly disburses.
There's still some charm in Charm City, despite it all. Ness finds compassion, hard work and optimism among the police, the politicians (most strikingly rising star Brandon Scott) and the people. They make some strides, cleaning up and staying calm. But anyone who cares about Baltimore should root for City Councilman Scott, who seems tired of leaving the fate of these streets to the powerless, and is stepping up with forceful ideas.