Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Netflix releases the film on Thursday, April 15.
In 1927, filmmaker Walter Ruttman rendered Berlin as a cinematic symphony; in 2020, TT the Artist uses her camera to remix Baltimore into a 65-minute banger. A full-body ode to her hometown and the incredible people who keep it bouncing in spite of everything else, “Dark City Beneath the Beat” isn’t just a blood-stained but ecstatically hopeful love letter to Bmore, it’s also the most danceable movie this side of “Girl Walk//All Day.”
“There are thousands of ways to tell this story,” the opening title card insists, but TT — an open-hearted musician best known for carnal dance club tracks like “Pussy Ate” and “Let Me See Ya” — finds one that feels unique to her. Taking a DJ-inspired approach to documentary cinema that finds TT seamlessly looping archival footage and original dance sequences into a kind of hyper-expressive cinematic flashmob, “Dark City” explodes onto the streets of Baltimore in a burst of fire. Man-on-the-street interviews with local icons like producer Mighty Mark (who contributed to TT’s killer score for the film) blur into expressively choreographed dance sequences on the strength of a thick beat that allows the whole town to feel like it’s moving in place.
TT herself jumps on the mic early on in order to set the scene and read us her mission statement; her scripted narration is a bit stiff for such a freestyle documentary, but it helps the tourists out there get the lay of the land and keep up with a film that never slows its feet. “My opinion of Baltimore is good and bad,” TT says. “But I love my city, and I will until the day I die.” And though “Dark City” filters that love through the local dance scene — it pays homage to the legendary South Baltimore nightclub The Paradox, offers a crash course on the Queen of Baltimore dance competition, and eulogizes beloved contest winner Tamika “Fatgirl” Raye — the film listens out for the rhythm of the entire city.
From the streets of Cherry Hill to the entrance of Lexington Market, Kirby Griffin’s bright and colorful cinematography sees a wide array of Bmore landmarks in a crisp new light. TT tells us in no uncertain terms that she wants this documentary to destigmatize her city for outsiders who’ve only seen it on “The Wire” or when it’s burning on the news; that she wants to spread the gospel of Bmore talent, and create a visceral tribute to the vitality of black life in a place that so much of white America has already written off.
At the same, TT also takes pains to spell out something the hometown crowd will likely feel in their bones: This is a movie that’s for the people of Baltimore, who could use a big gesture of love from one of their own. The nuances might be lost on out-of-towners, but it’s easy for anyone to appreciate how galvanizing it might be for a celebration like “Dark City” to loudly put some respect into neglected places, and on names that need to be recognized. Expressing herself through lyrical abstraction in a way that spins the whole city into a single organism that encompasses its young, old, gay, straight, cis, trans, and other assorted members alike, TT finds strength in pain and beauty in suffering.
Rather than dryly relitigate Baltimore’s racial tensions, she stages a brilliant (and borderline slapstick) ballet that pits a black man against a white cop in a public space. Rather than reaffirm the heartsick words of a youth recovery center worker who says that “In Baltimore, everything is dealt with hostile,” TT channels that energy into a protest sequence where black dancers in orange prison jumpsuits move as one along the Inner Harbor and reclaim the site through solidarity. And rather than reaggravate the murder of Freddie Gray by walking us through the details like we shouldn’t know them already, TT ends her movie on a heartstopping note as she captures a ballerina swanning amongst the tombstones of a Baltimore graveyard.
Produced by Issa Rae (who featured one of TT’s songs on a recent episode of “Insecure”), “Dark City” doesn’t ignore the veil of trauma that hangs over Baltimore, but it insists that people — especially the city’s exuberant creative class — are able to see through it. “The kids remind you how pure and genuine everything is,” someone tells the camera, and this short, endlessly rewatchable audiovisual experience spins that truth in a way that lets it move from your ears to your heart without missing a beat.
“Dark City: Beneath the Beat” was slated to premiere at SXSW 2020.