Charm City (269624)

“Charm City” may well be the most beautifully shot documentary in recent memory, courtesy of John Benam and Andre Lambertson, who the duties of cinematographer and director of photography. Fresh off of rave reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival, it revisits the streets of Baltimore so eloquently fictionalized in the HBO cable series “The Wire.” But while that acclaimed TV drama ended on a dour note, in this nonfiction narrative, hope springs eternal in the midst of relentless calamity.  

“Charm City” takes its title from the slogan concocted in a 1970s advertising campaign conceived to generate tourism. The campaign faded away, but the nickname stuck, although the residents who inhabit this documentary have taken to call their town “Harm City,” in a grim riff on the more positive epithet (other, equally morbid monikers include “Bodymore, Murdaland”).

The focal point of this doc is Alex Long, a local activist and veteran of the city’s (and America’s) legacy of misplaced justice before he made the fateful decision to step away from this self destructive cycle. Even so, he doesn’t sugar-coat the reality of his environment, suggesting the neighborhood itself holds the key to its redemption, as the breakdown in outside revenues and support fall short.

Some of his musings echo other, previously utterances of poor self esteem and the tendency to ignore the value of human life, “…the stats are what they are for a reason.”

In its strictest definition, documentary filmmaking, and the style of cinema vérité  (French for “truth cinema”) in particular, placing the camera?in one place and let the subject matter unfold before it (ala, what ever happens, happens). “Charm City” builds upon this by utilizing several points of view, including “Mr. C.,” a corrections officer turned village elder who grooms several protégées (especially Long) to act as interventionists within the community). Within the power structure is Brandon Scott, a city councilman and local native committed to cure the pathology he came up in. In the middle is veteran cop Captain Monique Brown, a product of the generational narcotic addiction and dysfunction of the streets she supervises, as well as youthful patrolman Eric Winston, who displays unreal composure and maturity as he is met with abuse and profanity from those he protects and serves.

The underlying subtext of “The Wire” seemed to be that anyone who dares to change conditions in Baltimore is earmarked for damnation for their efforts. In contrast to this bleak outlook, Ness strives to find optimism even in these overwhelmingly desperate circumstances. During the film, Long’s sister Ashley is murdered (victim #106 of 1,029 homicides in Baltimore during the three year span of production for this documentary).

In spite of this, Long chooses the high road, instead of the expected response of retaliation and retribution. The camera catches him sweeping debris on a forlorn cityscape, murmuring about the slow police response, but refusing to surrender to despair under these discouraging circumstances. In this, he poses a compelling question:

“What are we as Black people tired of?”

“Charm City” opens Friday, Oct. 19 at the Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd, in Beverly Hills. Call (310) 478-3836 (Laemmle) for show times.