Sonja Sohn Makes her Directorial Debut with the Documentary Baltimore Rising by Christopher Llewellyn Reed
Ever since her starring role on HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008), actress Sonja Sohn has pursued a parallel life as social activist through her non-profit organization ReWired for Change. With its mission to empower “at risk youth, families and communities living in underserved areas through media, social advocacy and the facilitation of community building resources,” the group seeks solutions to society’s long-standing ills. As one of the interview subjects in her new documentary Baltimore Rising (her directorial debut) makes clear, the police can’t – nor should – do everything. There need to be policies in place beyond law enforcement, though the police can – and should – address the things they do that contribute to urban misery.
That speaker just happens to be Baltimore’s Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, and one of the best aspects of Sohn’s movie is how well she uses her access to participants on all sides of the socio-political debate, which erupted in the aftermath of local youth Freddie Gray’s death, to weave a fascinating tapestry of synthesis, symbiosis and conflict. Her status as local celebrity and activist have clearly gained her the trust of Baltimore’s neglected communities and of law enforcement, both. She brings her camera into police headquarters and into the streets, following those struggling to bring the city together as one. While the issues she raises may not be new, the cooperation between the Commissioner, his staff, and local residents are. If nothing else, Baltimore Rising raises the hope that dialogue between erstwhile enemies is possible.
Activist Kwame Rose and youth organizer Makayla Gilliam-Price, both featured in Baltimore Rising
Still, all the while she films, the trials of officers indicted in Gray’s death continue. An African-American policewoman who is very sympathetic to improving community relations cheers when there is a mistrial. Granted, we are a tribal species, and also creatures of context, so our group identification can often trump our sense of right and wrong, or at least affect it. In the middle of community-police negotiations, we see one of our main characters harassed on the streets by the men and women in blue, merely for protesting. Contradictions abound.
There may be no such thing as true objectivity, in other words, but by showcasing differing points of view, with all their nuances, Sohn is able to write a cinematic essay that encompasses the wide range of opinions within her adopted city, at least among those who would like conditions to improve. These include the thoughts of BPD (Baltimore Police Department) Lieutenant Colonel Melvin Russell, who admits that “we’re in a city that is underserved and over-policed,” and those of Dayvon Love, Director of Public Policy at “Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle,” who urges us to not “get sucked into the theater of a public trial,” among others. Everyone has an idea, and some of them are worth considering.
Poor Baltimore, though! Charm city, indeed … Whether in TV series like Homicide: Life on the Streets or The Wire we just can’t seem to catch a narrative break when it comes to how the rest of the world sees us. Then again, if some truths about us are going to be told, at least let it be done by David Simon, phenomenal screenwriter that he is, or Sohn. Plus, anyone who thinks that other urban spaces do not have similar problems is kidding themselves, though we do have one of highest murder rates around. The mistake we all too often make is to talk only about that fact, itself, and not its causes. Thanks to Sohn, we now have a hard-hitting, insightful new documentary that addresses those causes and lends hope, however qualified, to what has been a heretofore hopeless dialogue.
Director/ Executive Producer Sonja Sohn with activist Kwame Rose and youth organizer Makayla Gilliam-Price who are both featured in Baltimore Rising
Baltimore Rising premiered on HBO and HBO LATINO on Monday, November 20, 2017, at 8PM. It will be simultaneously available on HBO GO and HBO NOW, and is now available on demand.
Watch the trailer: Baltimore Rising (Sonja Sohn, 92 min).
Top Image: Executive Producer George Pelecanos, Director/ Executive Producer Sonja Sohn, activist Kwame Rose, and youth organizer Makayla Gilliam-Price at HBO “Baltimore Rising” panel, AP Photo by Chris Pizzello