On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore. Seven days later, he was dead, never having left police custody; the cause of death was a severed spinal cord. It was later revealed that Gray probably sustained serious injuries due to the “rough ride” deliberately inflicted on him by the officers of the Baltimore Police Department, and his death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner’s office.
It was not lost on many that Gray joined the unfortunately long line of young African American men killed by the police, nor that the circumstances of his death suggested, at the very least, police overreaction and a callous disregard for his life. Public protests followed, as did police and National Guard response, and Baltimore was temporary placed in a state of emergency. Scenes of civil unrest from Baltimore became a regular feature on television news coverage, and many people formed their understanding of the case, the response, and more generally about the city of Baltimore itself from the images included in that coverage.
Unfortunately, television news is one of the worst possible ways to learn about any complex situation. The popular media bias towards oversimplification and the retelling of familiar stories is further distorted by the desire for impressive visuals, so looting and burning buildings, accompanied by unchallenged sound bites from authority figures, are more likely to be featured than considered examinations of the historical and social context, a balanced discussions of the issues, or even footage of local residents doing the kinds of reasonable, helpful things that are necessary to keep a neighborhood, and a city, functioning.
Lights of Baltimore, directed by Sabrina Bouarour and co-produced by Bouarour and St. Louis native Beau Willimon, offers a different view of Baltimore than that offered up by the television news. It’s an advantage that Bouarour is an outsider—she holds a PhD in film from the Sorbonne, and first came to Baltimore as a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University—and it also helps that she fell in love with the city during that earlier visit. When she returned to Baltimore following Gray’s death, she was prepared to tell a story about the city that avoids the usual narratives sold again and again in American media, instead offering a more nuanced portrait that got behind the obvious problems to consider the roots of those problems, as well as featuring the strength and beauty of the city and its residents.
Lights of Baltimore begins, Heavenly Creatures style, with a clip from a boosterish 1960s film extolling Baltimore’s merits—among them, that it was America’s sixth largest city and home to its second-busiest port—which raises the obvious question of what happened between then and now. That’s a question that St. Louis residents should be particularly interested in, since we share so much in common with Baltimore. There are no huge mysteries to reveal, however: an interview with history professor Elizabeth Nix points out that the underlying causes of urban riots in the 1960s, as outlined by the Kerner Commission—police behavior, inadequate housing, poor education—remain unsolved problems in Baltimore today.
Rather than address these issues, the city’s response has sometimes resulting in measures that 1) don’t solve the problems, and 2) are considered invasive and oppressive by the very people they are ostensibly meant to benefit. A case in point: the widespread installation of CCTV cameras in some neighborhoods, which Kevin Moore describes as turning his entire neighborhood into one big jail cell. Moore, you may recall, is the person who shot the video of Freddie Gray’s arrest (included in this film), so he’s not unaware of the benefits of visual evidence, just suspicious about whose needs the new cameras are intended to serve. That’s a particularly good question to ask given that the body cameras worn by police, which could provide video evidence regarding any incidents in which they are involved, have a mysterious habit of not being turned on during incidents involving alleged police misconduct.
Bouarour’s primary interest is not in the governing structures of Baltimore, nor in its historic buildings, but in the people who live there and make the city what it is. So, she’s as interested in the dancing of Dimitri Reeves as of the words of any professor, and also includes the kind of documentary footage that could be included in evening news, but seldom is. Case in point—clips of the citizens of Baltimore cleaning up the rubble following a night of unrest, and of community members personally apologizing to shop owners for the damage, and offering to fix it. In the case of Baltimore, and of urban American in general, the battle of images has been far too one-sided. Lights of Baltimore offers one important corrective to the images we’re used to being fed, and I can only hope that more will follow. | Sarah Boslaugh
Lights of Baltimore is available for home viewing through Nov. 22 as a free screening through the SLIFF web site. Further information about SLIFF, including a complete list of films available and viewing options, is also available from the festival web site.