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‘Baltimore Rising’ is a Vital Portrait of Activism, Anger, and a City’s Search for Justice and Healing

By showing the pain in conflict and the hope in healing, Sonja Sohn's HBO documentary gives a full picture of a city looking for a way forward.

Baltimore Rising HBO Shadow

“Baltimore Rising”

HBO

The death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015, will likely be the subject of many future documentaries. When detailing Gray’s arrest at the hands of Baltimore police officers, and the spinal cord injuries that led to his passing a week later, many of these films will probably include the harrowing cell phone footage of Gray’s arrest that appears early on in “Baltimore Rising,” the new HBO documentary from actress Sonja Sohn.

For the rest of its 93-minute runtime, “Baltimore Rising” uses Gray’s treatment to examine the fabric of the city in the year that followed. Through highlighting activists young and old, as well as providing perspective from inside the law enforcement community, Sohn presents a view of Baltimore that has its share of division — but is made up of individuals trying to find healing in their own way.

Apart from documenting pivotal moments in the aftermath of Gray’s death and the developments in the trial that came after, Sohn delivers an important idea about activism. In public discourse, activism often gets gathered under a single amorphous banner. But in “Baltimore Rising,” Sohn presents the experiences of high school senior Makayla Gilliam-Price, activist Kwame Rose, and Genard “Shadow” Barr, a community outreach specialist. Some use bullhorns, some stage legislative sit-ins, others organize interfaith shows of unity in response to various verdicts in Gray-related cases.

“Baltimore Rising” also benefits from not showing its main activist characters as infallible agents of change. Gilliam-Price is a teenager still struggling with how to stay engaged with her efforts while still being true to her upbringing. Rose is a young man who is occasionally at odds with his own family about his chosen methods of protest. The film acknowledges its subjects as people, rather than simply a stand-in for the movements they are a part of.

By documenting these different approaches to affecting change on a local level, Sohn doesn’t endorse one over the other or graft an ideological struggle narrative over these individual efforts. “Baltimore Rising” presents more than a single approach to changing institutional and societal relationships between citizens and police officers.

Baltimore Rising HBO Activists

“Baltimore Rising”

HBO

Sohn also includes literal street-level views of how Gray’s death connects to a story that many Baltimore residents share. One early collection of stories, featuring neighbors talking about crimes that took or impacted the lives of loved ones, is overwhelming in how quickly it passes. A single minute can barely contain the stories, which could each sustain documentaries of their own. That tension is part of how “Baltimore Rising” helps consider the city in full, as it views it through the lens of a handful of individuals. Even an early mention of the city’s previous history as a jazz haven segues to a discussion of institutional changes in how those areas were policed.

In a formal approach to combating an “us vs. them” narrative from any side of the response to life in Baltimore after the Gray verdicts, Sohn also includes the input from ranking police officials within the Baltimore Police Department. Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell, in a single talking head interview, shows that there is pain on either side of growing tensions between law enforcement and the black community, even as it manifests itself in different ways. When Shadow speaks with BPD Commissioner Kevin Davis, it doesn’t solely focus on Shadow’s impassioned pleas for change, it also thoughtfully considers the questions and sentiments coming back from Davis’ direction.

It’s not the job of “Baltimore Rising” to offer a magical solution that will unite all of these disparate parties in a common cause. Instead, the value of the film lies in showing that the efforts are being made to promote a common understanding. One of the most enjoyable sequences in the film is a flag football game between BPD representatives and individuals from various groups within Baltimore’s black community. Some participants categorize it as a truce of sorts, but there’s hope within scenes like this that this kind of spirit could also be a first step.

But like the film’s young activists, “Baltimore Rising” doesn’t confuse hope for complacency. It recognizes that through the various threads that comprise modern Baltimore life, the commitment to racial equality and fostering a culture of safety is an ongoing process. So when the film ends with the first anniversary of Gray’s death, there’s both a spoken and unspoken sense that there’s more work to be done. But “Baltimore Rising” shows a city working to find ways to make sure that work benefits all its citizens.

Grade: A-

“Baltimore Rising” premieres November 20 at 8:00 p.m. The film will be available on YouTube for one month starting on November 21. 

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