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A film about the police and the ‘policed’ in Baltimore makes a run for the Oscars

Filmmaker Marilyn Ness, director of the Baltimore documentary “Charm City,” which was shortlisted for the Oscars. (Photo Illustration by Chris Sorensen/For The Washington Post)

In 2014, when Marilyn Ness began making her feature documentary "Charm City," she knew two things. First, she wanted to make a movie about the police and, as she puts it, the "policed." Second, she did not want her film to be another straightforward condemnation of law enforcement.

The result, she hoped, would permit viewers to feel empathy for both sides. “At the time, it felt radical to feel empathetic to some people in our film,” Ness told an audience of about 30 people in mid-January during a Q&A that followed a screening of the film in Los Angeles. “How do you give people a chance to see what they see and maybe think what they think?”

Born and raised in New York City, where she still lives, Ness was in L.A. for the dog and pony show of Oscar campaigning. PBS released “Charm City” in October in three cities and screened it at film festivals. (The documentary will premiere on PBS stations April 22.) In December, the film made the Oscar shortlist, giving it a second life and kicking off a bicoastal campaign to persuade voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to make Ness’s humble, unflashy film an Oscar nominee. “Charm City” is the first film she has directed to be shortlisted, but this is not her first Academy Awards campaign; she produced the documentary “Cameraperson,” which was shortlisted for the Oscars in 2017. She also has a slew of Emmys and Peabodys to her name.

The screening that night in Los Angeles was open to the public. During the Q&A, Ness, 45, was poised and didn’t display a hint of anxiety. (She said screening the film for the subjects was more nerve-racking.) Afterward, she fielded a few more questions from audience members in the lobby before heading to a dinner for a number of figures from the documentary world at the tony Chateau Marmont, across the Sunset Strip. Then she caught a red-eye back to New York for two more screenings. She would learn whether her efforts had made a difference on Jan. 22, the day the Oscar nominees were to be announced.

“Charm City” sets itself apart from thousands of documentaries released each year because it does what so few pieces of art or media do these days: It considers two camps that are locked in tension with each other, and discovers that they might have more in common than they thought. The film follows a few members of the Baltimore Police Department, on the one hand, and, on the other, a pair of community leaders from Rose Street, a neighborhood deeply affected by rampant violence, drug trade and lack of opportunities.

“I was feeling very keenly in everything I read that you were either on one side or the other, and there wasn’t a lot of meaningful or honest accounting of how hard it was to be either,” Ness told me over the phone a few days after the L.A. screening. “All you had were people shouting across this divide at each other. The wish was to figure out how we could be out there capturing what it meant to be someone living in these situations or working in these situations.”

“Charm City” tackles that by taking a “call and answer” approach, Ness says. The film follows community leaders Alex Long and Clayton “Mr. C” Guyton as they engage in activism, illustrating their experiences with gun violence and police abuse. Those scenes are juxtaposed with the daily routine of a Baltimore cop — “a day in the life of a lot of nothing punctuated by a huge amount of adrenaline,” as Ness describes it. The parallels are well crafted and honest: A funeral for one of the many young black men who have been shot and killed in Baltimore in recent years is followed later by an enormous funeral, with all the associated pomp and circumstance, for an officer who was also shot and killed. (In 2017, Baltimore had the highest murder rate of any U.S. city with a population over 500,000.)

Ness says she hired two local crews, one each to follow the cops and the community leaders, because a documentarian seen with one group was unlikely to earn the trust of the other. By bringing in cameras, she says, she also ceded any chance of capturing police corruption or crimes in progress, so she instead sought subjects who were striving to improve the city.

The specter of police abuse, however, still loomed in the background. Shock waves from the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody reverberate throughout the city to this day. But ultimately, Ness decided not to focus on Gray. Ness, who is white, says, “It never felt like our story to tell.” She also wanted to show that although Gray’s death was a horrific example of the city’s problems, Baltimore’s challenges extend beyond his Sandtown neighborhood. She recalls one of the film’s subjects telling her: “ ‘That was West Baltimore, and this is East Baltimore, and we felt for him and we know guys like him, but we have a hundred Freddie Grays in our neighborhood.’ ”

The other meta-narrative hanging over “Charm City” was “The Wire,” David Simon’s acclaimed fictional television series about Baltimore. Ness heard from residents who hated its portrayal of their city. “We had to sort of live down ‘The Wire’ in a lot of ways,” she says. “But it also did provide another narrative you could counter.” By that, she means “The Wire’s” recurring theme about how a larger system tends to crush individuals no matter what they do. By contrast, Ness wanted “Charm City” to be what she calls “The Wire 2.0,” where individuals’ actions and activism helped to support others against that crushing weight. (Asked for comment, Simon wrote in an email, “We stand by what we wrote and filmed and why we did so. But that’s merely our part. ... There are many stories in Baltimore, and Ms. Ness — along with every journalist, author and filmmaker in this city — is entitled to her own narrative. I wish her well with it.”)

Toward the end of “Charm City,” Baltimore City Council member Brandon Scott gathers police officers and neighborhood kids to discuss the issues that both sides are facing, a natural culmination of the movie’s intentions. It suggests any road forward is more likely to be a bridge. Ness says she found it “super-encouraging” that the police department used the film in the police academy last summer. Evaluations and data collected afterward, she notes, show that officers didn’t know what was happening in communities “on this super-micro level, that there are people trying to lift up their own communities.”

So how did Academy voters receive the film? The morning of Jan. 22, Ness learned “Charm City” was not among the five nominees. But the film is still slated to be screened in 60 additional cities as part of a program called Indie Lens Pop-Up. Said Ness: “We’re at the beginning of things, as opposed to at the end, which is a really exciting place to be, to have the wind at our backs from the acknowledgment of the academy.”

Kevin Lincoln is a writer in Los Angeles.

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