A little more than halfway through Sonja Sohn’s fascinating yet noticeably scattered documentary “Baltimore Rising” (airing Monday on HBO), a viewer realizes how unfair it is to expect any director to deliver a linear, organized film about the chaos that surrounds injustice. If community organizers and protesters have a hard time harnessing their anger and finding narrative satisfaction in despair, then how can anyone else? A movie about their frustration ought to be equally frustrating to watch — and this one is.
Sohn, known from “The Wire” as Detective Kima Greggs, brings her cameras in close to the center of the action after the riots that followed the April 2015 death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a Baltimore man arrested by police and transported to jail in a ride so rough it left him in a coma with profound neck and spinal injuries.
As the state prosecutes (unsuccessfully, it turned out) the police officers it charged with murder and other offenses in relation to Gray’s death, “Baltimore Rising” follows several activists — from beginners like high school senior Makayla Gilliam-Price to more seasoned organizers like 28-year-old Dayvon Love, part of a group called Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle — who want their outrage to become an effective catalyst for change.
A new police commissioner, Kevin Davis, embarks on a listening tour that makes for emotional documentary footage (“I’m sorry that law enforcement in this community is like this,” Davis says at one point, near tears, after listening to a former gang member and community leader Genard “Shadow” Barr recount decades of police abuse), but the scene is interesting mainly for its sense of futility. Davis spends most of his time begging the residents not to riot again; the only moment of progress is represented (somewhat poorly) by police participation in a touch-football game with men in the neighborhood.
There are plenty of personal stories here to absorb: Kwame Rose, who gained notoriety for lecturing Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera about how the media cover civil unrest, keeps getting arrested at protests for what appear to be legal, if exuberant, expressions of free speech. (“It’s your constitutional right to protest,” a white woman tells Kwame at another protest. “I don’t get those rights,” he replies.)
Sohn also follows Dawnyell Taylor, an African American police detective assigned to lead the investigation into Gray’s death. Taylor cheers with relief when her colleagues are acquitted or have their charges dropped.
“Baltimore Rising” lets such contradictions speak for themselves, as a depressing theme of status quo emerges and the communal energy stirred up by Gray’s death begins to dissipate. The city’s issues run deeper than one police-related death and reflect decades of poverty, drugs and racism. The “Rising” seldom presents itself.
While a crowd chants themselves hoarse at a trial-related protest outside police headquarters, activist Love observes the negligible impact: “I generally get frustrated with the way that people get sucked into the theater of the actual trial. . . . It’s really the least amount of justice that one could ask for.”
And though she is young and idealistic, Gilliam-Price begins to sense the fatigue as well. Participating in yet another trial-related march (“Whose streets? Our streets!”), she says: “I feel like there’s no concrete strategy attached to [protesting]. Like, the visual is there and people are being engaged in a political process, but that process isn’t being used to do anything greater than just this — people standing on a street corner.”
Gilliam-Price’s mother is particularly galled when her daughter reads aloud a draft of a personal essay that emphasizes Makayla’s personal struggle in a “facade of safety.”
“It sounds like you have been fighting all your life, [that] you were born into this struggle, that you didn’t have a good childhood,” her mother says. “I don’t like the tone of it. It’s not your reality.”
Although that moment comes near the end of “Baltimore Rising,” it can’t help but suggest an idea for a stronger film that might have come from Sohn’s effort: the physical and mental toll of living in a constant state of oppression.
Baltimore Rising (95 minutes) airs Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO.