Baltimore Rising, directed by Sonja Sohn, places a microscope on the national uproar spurred after the death of Freddie Gray. In 2015, the 25-year-old was arrested by Baltimore police officers for the alleged possession of an illegal switchblade, and placed in the back of a van that furiously tossed his body into a coma with spine and neck injuries, resulting in his death.
Sohn, who played Detective Kima Greggs on HBO’s hit show The Wire, knows on and off screen Baltimore’s turbulent history with law enforcement, and the slew of socio-economic factors that affects its predominantly African-American residents.
“When the uprising was happening in Baltimore. I think out of all the places where there has been police brutality, Baltimore might be the only place where you hear about the root of the police brutality,” Sohn says seated inside a New York City HBO conference room. “That there are economic disparities; there is neglect; injustice—there are kinds of systemic injustices, and police brutality is one thread of that tapestry.”
Out to undue that tapestry is high school student Makayla Gilliam-Price, who traded in her textbooks for Activism 101. In the film, her dedication to the cause is tangible. Within her fight, she experiences a bit of pushback from her mother who is concerned with Makayla’s formal education than her self-made activist lesson plans in the streets of her hometown. The tone of the film has a do or die feel to it: only the strong survive, and justice is the main objective.
Yet beneath the constant struggle, the documentary gives viewers a glimpse of hope. New police commissioner Kevin Davis makes an attempt to hear out Baltimore’s problems with law enforcement. In a sit down meeting with community leader Genard “Shadow” Barr, Davis listens to the former gang member’s turbulent history and his distrust with police. “I’m sorry that law enforcement in this community is like this,” Davis responds on the verge of tears. To soothe tensions, Barr organizes a flag football game with members of the community and police.
It seems like a breakthrough, but has change really occurred when the six officers charged in Gray’s death were exonerated of any federal charges? And with this current political administration, the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color isn’t getting better. Sohn echoes these sentiments. “I’m not sure that there is an interest in building a bridge between African-American communities and law enforcement on a national level anymore,” she said.
Still, besides the national conversation the film stirs, the personal stories it showcases are captivating. Kwame Rose (né Darius Kwame Rosebrough) made national headlines when he confronted Fox News anchor Geraldo Rivera about his tone deaf and white-washed perspective of the facts and told him to leave Baltimore.
While the cameras were rolling, Rose gets arrested multiple times for protesting, which is his right as an American citizen, but since he’s a black man those rights are subject to change. “I don’t get those rights,” he says when a white woman tells him it’s his “constitutional right” to protest. These small interludes of reality excel at presenting the complexities of the power white privilege has against people of color.
Baltimore Rising provides a sense of empathy for its people. Everyone has a story here. There are the disgruntled cops who are tired of being harassed by civilians who are angry. There are the young and old activists making overzealous attempts to keep fighting and amplify their voice. Then, there’s the lead homicide detective in Gray’s case, Dawnyell Taylor, who has previously faced death threats for her work.
There’s no denying Baltimore is grappling with poverty, drug abuse, crime and neglect from government officials. But the problems that tear the city apart are the same issues that unite its residents in efforts to help enact change. More needs to be done, but Baltimore Rising shows the city’s people aren’t backing down anytime soon.