There’s an abundance of roadblocks that Pug has to maneuver on that journey: He loses his older brother, Tibba, to complications of an asthma attack; his bike is stolen by someone he can’t physically defend himself against; and just about every week, police and the local news media are hellbent on quelling the riders’ daredevil activity. On top of these struggles, he also has to weave his way through the challenges of growing up between West and East Baltimore — majority-Black areas of the city that have their fair share of misfortune, even if that narrative is often dramatized for mainstream consumption.
The story of Pug and the 12 O’Clock Boys is the foundation for “Charm City Kings,” an adaptation of the documentary that recently premiered on HBO Max. The film comes with big names attached, as it is executive produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith (the latter a Baltimore native), with the screenplay handled by Sherman Payne and a script developed by Kirk Sullivan, Chris Boyd and Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”). The protagonist of “Charm City Kings” is 14-year-old Mouse (played by Jahi Di’Allo Winston), a kid who, like Pug, has aspirations of being a veterinarian and lives in West Baltimore with his mother (Teyonah Parris) and younger sister. Even if it weren’t built off of Nathan’s documentary, the story is a familiar one: a young Black boy growing up in an underserved community who has to decide whether to stick to his innocent aspirations or risk his life to make a quick buck. This is what Mouse is tasked with navigating while in pursuit of being recruited by the Midnight Clique, the gold standard for dirt bikers in the city.
The parts of “Charm City Kings” where you see the Clique practically surfing across the city on their bikes, through tight streets and alleys via neck-turning camerawork, is where it excels. The film’s colorist, Sam Daley (“Succession,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Sorry to Bother You”), does a masterful job of massaging Baltimore’s dilapidation by adding a dreamy tint to these high-speed joyrides. Pacino Braxton (Jamal) and Lakeyria Doughty (Queen), a pair of deity-level West Baltimore riders, star in the majority of these invigorating scenes, which adds a refreshing element of authenticity. But beyond the ooh and ahh moments, the dirt bikers are largely seen as menaces in a one-dimensional portrayal that reinforces stereotypes about the people and the community they come from.
The first time the Midnight Clique shows up, Jamal manipulates the cops into chasing him by throwing a brick through a squad-car window. Later, Clique members advocate for killing a man who stole a bike loaned to Mouse and end up beating the man within an inch of his life. And at every other point of the film, members of the Clique serve as villains who influence young riders to run drugs for them with the promise of loaned dirt bikes and money that’s unavailable anywhere else at their age. Director Angel Manuel Soto’s decision to emphasize this story line goes in direct contrast to “12 O’Clock Boys,” where none of the above plot points are present. (The original documentary does a much better job exploring the motivations of the key figures in the scene to dirt-bike riding.)
Over the years, there have indeed been crimes committed in Baltimore in which dirt bikes were used as getaway vehicles and or as devices to help carry out crimes in a more efficient manner. But the film has little interest in pointing out that most people involved in Baltimore’s dirt-bike culture are in it for the adrenaline-boosting freedom of whipping through city streets, for the love that it attracts from their community or for the most simple reason — it’s cool. At no point in the film are we introduced to riders who have no criminal history or no participation in illegal activity, something that the city’s law enforcement would surely sign off on.
The year that “12 O’Clock Boys” premiered, the Baltimore City Police Department provided an email address for people to send tips on dirt-bike-related crimes. In 2016, the department launched a dirt bike task force, dedicated solely to stopping bike-related crimes and confiscating unregistered bikes. A year earlier, then-City Council member Pete Welch had proposed a designated dirt-bike park to help get riders off the street to avoid life-threatening accidents. The park was never built, and there have yet to be any real steps from city leadership to open one since. Just two months ago, police vowed to ramp up the task force’s presence and deploy its “Foxtrot” surveillance helicopter in the Federal Hill neighborhood, a tourist-attracting enclave of transplants. The primary representative of Baltimore police in “Charm City Kings” differs from this reality. Instead, we get Detective Rivers, an overzealous but well-meaning officer who is obsessed with being a positive male role model in Mouse’s life, even though his presence is largely unwanted.
Beyond the dirt-bike riding, Soto’s additions to the story in terms of what it’s like to grow up in Baltimore are tired depictions of the city’s Black population that have been played out in shows and films such as “The Wire,” “The Corner” and “Hard Times At Douglass High.” As if Pug’s life didn’t have enough obstacles, “Charm City Kings” takes it up a notch. Instead of Mouse’s older brother, Stro, dying from a medical condition, we learn that he was killed. When a botched robbery that Mouse and his friends attempt ends with his 13-year-old friend being killed by a store clerk, Blax (played by Meek Mill, in a star-making turn) takes the fall for the robbery and goes back to prison for something he didn’t do. Every depiction of Black women in the film is either of them experiencing despair or making head-scratching sexual advances at Detective Rivers, while the half-baked insertion of the White woman who works at the animal clinic where Mouse volunteered showed her as a caring authority figure whose sole purpose is to help positively guide him. One of the only moments that you see Mouse’s mom rejoicing is when he surprises her with a pack of Newport cigarettes that he picked up on the way home.
The film’s bright moments — the acrobatics of the dirt-bike riders; the camaraderie between Mouse and his friends; a charming performance by Di’Allo Winston, even if his Baltimore accent is comically exaggerated — feel small in comparison with the repeated strife the majority of the characters experience throughout the film. “Charm City Kings” at times feels like a noble attempt to honor the city’s nearly 50-year tradition of minibikes and dirt bikes but ends up primarily adding to Black Baltimore’s public-facing negative reputation and will probably be used as ammunition by law enforcement officials in Baltimore — and beyond — to justify their continued focus on these riders.