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‘Baltimore Rising’ review: Documentary offers hopeful view

Dawnyell Taylor in HBO's "Baltimore Rising". (2017)

Dawnyell Taylor in HBO's "Baltimore Rising". (2017) Credit: HBO / Nick Ruechel

THE DOCUMENTARY “Baltimore Rising”

WHEN|WHERE Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Directed by Sonja Sohn (Det. Kima Greggs on “The Wire”), this 95-minute documentary follows activists, police and community leaders in the immediate aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died after being transported in a police van. His death on April 19, 2015, sparked riots across the city, and the state’s attorney later brought charges against six police officers.

MY SAY For most of us, the Baltimore riots and subsequent coverage of the indicted police officers was experienced — where else? — on the TV. TV came in to get the pictures, then TV moved on to the next tragedy or photo-op to lead the evening news. Left behind as usual were the impressions: of a city convulsed by tragedy then immobilized by it, unable to unwilling to move beyond the trauma. The murder rate soared. The anger — no, the fury — remained as hot as the day Freddie Gray was killed. With TV impressions as guide, we could reasonably surmise that Charm City — a bitter moniker once hatched by advertisers — was finished. The powerful message of “Baltimore Rising” is that it’s only just begun. That’s the double meaning of the title, and an especially important impression worth absorbing.

“Rising” is optimistic, but it’s not delusional, either. Sohn, a longtime community activist and founder of Baltimore-based ReWired for Life — which helps kids in trouble by teaching the lessons of “The Wire” — knows the city far too well to fall into that trap. On Nov. 15, Det. Sean Suiter, 43, father of five and an 18-year veteran of the police department, died after he was shot in the head. The murder rate in Baltimore just passed 300 a year for the third year in a row.

Considering this, any optimism might seem delusional. Instead, “Baltimore Rising” makes its case by taking viewers on an immersive you-are-there trip through the streets and around dining-room tables. There’s no narrator or explanatory pause. Viewers are thrown into the tumult of the riots, then “Rising” proceeds chronologically. Cameras pivot from community activists to police, recording their real-time reaction to whatever convulsive event has just occurred. Soon, the convulsion stops, and people start talking.

“Rising” often has the same dialectic narrative “The Wire” had on occasion: By speaking to each other, polar opposites discover common ground if not quite common cause. Genard “Shadow” Barr, a former gang member and community leader, pushes new police commissioner Kevin Davis on his promise to advocate for jobs. Davis listens to him and others, or certainly makes a good impression of someone listening.

Mostly, though, Sohn finds that common ground in private moments. A camera picks up 17-year-old protest activist Makayla Gilliam-Price as she moves from one meeting to another, then home, where she reads her Common App college entrance essay to her mother. She later confides that she once considered suicide because “I can’t do anything with this life I’ve been given.”

Another camera follows Det. Dawnyell Taylor, the lead investigator in the Gray homicide case, whose testimony helped clear Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. in his murder trial. Driving through darkened streets, Taylor recalls that as a 16-year-old living in a crack house, she, too, once considered suicide by downing a speedball of cocaine she found lying around.

Two people, polar opposites. Or are they? In that wisp of a question — which “Rising” explores in every frame — may lie the salvation for a great American city.

BOTTOM LINE Excellent you-are-there film that takes viewers — and Baltimore — from despair to hope.

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