It is very rare that Hollywood makes the decision to take on a story that includes the uniqueness of Baltimore City. This year, “Charm City Kings,” a coming-of-age story about the complexity of black masculinity and the pressures of inner-city social infrastructure, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to the sold-out Ray Theater in Park City, Utah.
The film stars Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Will Catlett and features a break-out performance by rapper Meek Mill. Angel Manuel Soto directs from a screenplay written by Sherman Payne, which is derived from a story by Kirk Sullivan, Chris Boyd and Barry Jenkins. Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith executive produced.
The film is full of promise and tells an almost Shakespearean story of a boy named Mouse and his friendships, star-crossed love and eventual fateful redemption. But the most important element to the film is Baltimore City’s unique dirt bike culture, drawing from Lotfy Nathan’s 2014 documentary “12 O’Clock Boys.” That film follows a young boy, Pug, on his journey to join an infamous dirt bike crew that parades throughout the city in the summer.
Dirt bike culture is a paradoxical phenomenon because the riders are highly skilled, popping wheelies to the point where the wheels are nearly pointing straight up in the air like hands on a clock at twelve. Despite this talent and its popularity throughout the city, riding dirt bikes on the streets of Baltimore is illegal.
Police are prohibited from chasing the dirt bikers in order to protect the safety of the police, other drivers, pedestrians and riders, but as soon as the riders jump off their bikes, the police are able to pursue and arrest them. This makes for a dramatic predicament within the film’s storyline, which attempts to highlight the humanity and passion of the riders and the frustration of the police who are inclined to uphold the law.
Director Angel Manuel Soto sat down with me at Marriott Summit Watch Hotel in Park City, the morning after the world premiere of “Charm City Kings” at Sundance. We talked about systemic pitfalls of marginalized communities, the film’s authentic cast and how the April 17th worldwide release may affect Baltimore City’s global image.
Baltimore Fishbowl: What is the understanding of the Black American male experience when it comes to this film?
Angel Manuel Soto: I feel irresponsible talking about the African-American experience, but I can talk about the colonial experience as a brown person that is from an island that is a slave island to the states, we’re a colony. We belong to, but we’re not a part of. So, I can speak from my experience and the experience of my family, and the experience of Puerto Ricans in New York and Chicago. We do not carry the weight of what black people went through with slavery in the U.S., but we carry a weight where I feel like I can relate, but I would never claim it as my own.
But in regards to “Charm City Kings,” I felt like I could definitely talk about the struggles of marginalized communities and disenfranchised youth because I myself was one, growing up in Puerto Rico. In moving to the states, I felt the backlash and the racism. I felt that we needed to come together as people of color and fight the system that is systematically oppressing us. When we find those common grounds, I feel like we’re able to build on each other and make a better world.
That’s how the producers, like Caleb Pinkett, and I connected. We were able to find that emotional connection that made us who we are based on the similar struggles that we faced.
BFB: Did you spend any time in Baltimore before you started shooting?
AMS: Yes, I did. I really wanted to get a sense of the city. I’d only heard and read about it before stepping foot there for the first time, and I remember telling production that I wanted to go there and spend months and be embedded with the local community, the writers.
And as beautiful as it is next to the water, that is not the Baltimore we are talking about. There’s a whole different Baltimore. So, I really wanted to be able to experience what it was like to be in a place that the rest of the country has forgotten. It wasn’t that much different from Puerto Rico and that’s why I felt so comfortable there. I became friends with the community. They embraced me as a part of their family, not just because I was there doing a movie about Baltimore, but because they felt I was doing them good. I was being authentic and genuine to their struggle and I wasn’t filming them with a judgmental eye. I wasn’t there because I wanted something from them. I really wanted to connect as much as I could and they opened their doors and let me in. So, those months before shooting allowed me to do for Baltimore what I would like people to do for my island.
BFB: With the release of this film, Baltimore is about to attract a global audience. How would you like the world to receive “Charm City Kings”?
AMS: I want the world to have a conversation about what is wrong with society that it’s allowing communities that were thriving once to disappear, to an extent that it feels like its people have been forgotten. What are we doing as a society that feels like it only exists on the shoulders of marginalized communities? What can we do to change that? What can we do to give disenfranchised youth the same opportunities that a white person in the suburbs has? Why are we pushing them aside? Why are we criminalizing the stuff they do?
Riding is their only freedom, and they’re good at it, and everyone else in the world celebrates them, but the justice system says it’s a felony. So when what you love is a crime in the eyes of a corrupt system, you see yourself as a criminal. It’s a systematic mindset that is really hard to break when the community is so broken, set apart, torn down and set against each other.
What can we do to stop that? We cannot just talk about it. The conversation needs to lead to action. If we have that conversation, we can save all the Mouses in the world, and I think that would be great.
BFB: Didn’t I see Pug, the star of the “12 O’Clock Boys” documentary, in the film?
AMS: Yes, we tried to use a lot of people from the culture. Coco, his mom was in the movie too. Chino Braxton, Wheelie Queen and a lot of the original 12 O’Clock Boys were there. That’s part of the authenticity we wanted to keep. We wanted to have them involved because if we did something wack, they would say, “That’s bullshit.” Chino was very outspoken. So, they kept us in check if anything was wrong. They’d say: “Nah, we don’t say that. We don’t walk this way, we don’t hit this way.” That’s exactly what we wanted. It really helped in order to keep it authentic.
BFB: How do you think this film reflects the complicated infrastructure of Baltimore’s marginalized communities?
AMS: I do believe that locals investing in locals creates a sense of ownership. The thing that is most responsible for keeping people marginalized is making people feel like they are worthless. And that has been systematic since the beginning of the United States. If you’re worth nothing or less than somebody then you don’t value yourself. Therefore, you don’t care where you are.
I feel when you start working on community self esteem of loving who you are, your identity, and you know you can be anything you want to be, when you have that, I feel that translates to the streets.