Marilyn Ness and “Charm City”: The Power of Film for Change

For the fifth year running, Baltimore is set to exceed 300 homicides in 2019.  With the New York Times calling this violence a “tragedy”, it is easy to fall into despair about whether change is possible at all.

Marilyn Ness’ documentary “Charm City” takes a different tack on the problems the city faces.  In the film, Ness explores the complexities of the systemic issues in Baltimore while turning a spotlight on the people whose lives are affected by it the most. “The power of film–and documentary in particular–lies in its ability to put you in a real place, make your audience feel like they are with you in that place, with real people, seeing the world through their eyes,” she said.

Ness, a two-time Emmy winning director, gave the keynote address on November 5 at the 4th Annual Medicine for the Greater Good Symposium.  Medicine for the Greater Good is an organization at the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus whose mission is “to promote health and wellness beyond the confines of the hospital.”

Ness interspersed her remarks with clips from “Charm City”, which showcases the day-to-day struggles and triumphs of the Baltimore Police and the “policed” living in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“If it feels real enough, and if the subjects can trust enough to be true and real on-screen, and it’s got a real good story, then that place and those people and that story become universal,” she said. “For me as a filmmaker, that’s the holy grail.”

Among many others, “Charm City” tells the stories of Alex Long, who started a free boxing gym for youths, and of Lieutenant Colonel Monique Brown, whose story about forming a personal relationship with a struggling teen was later used in a Baltimore Police Department recruitment video.

Through these types of personal stories, Ness hopes to show the audience that “perhaps there are a few people on both sides who can reach a hand across.”

“Charm City” has already had a tangible, concrete impact on the city it portrays.  “The [Baltimore Police Department] trained their Academy officers using the film,” Ness said. “Maryland Police Training Commission trained their corrections officers on empathy using ‘Charm City’.”

Ness’ documentary exemplifies how cinema can change minds, and with it, the broader community.  “Film lets viewers – lets you – figure out for yourself in the dark of the theater: here’s how I can contribute; this is what I can do to help,” she said.

The theme of this year’s symposium was “Art & Medicine: Partners for Healthier Communities” and the panel discussion following the keynote elaborated on the importance of using arts as a form of public health care in its own right.

Meg Chisolm, a psychiatrist and the Vice Chair for Education in the Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences Department at Johns Hopkins, moderated the discussion amongst a diverse group of researchers, health professionals, and musicians including:

  • Susan Magsamen, Executive Director of the IAM Lab
  • Sarah Hoover, Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine
  • Erica Wright, the 18-year old founder of Speak Art
  • Wande Kotun, health administrator at Johns Hopkins Bayview and self-taught artist
  • Rev. Dred Scott, former attorney, pastor, and musician

In discussing the interdisciplinary efforts required to build healthier communities, the panelists affirmed a central message from the keynote.

To fix a broken system, we need “to convince an entire city that it’s not only the job of the police or the policed to make change, but it’s the job of each and every single one of us,” Ness said.  “You need to show people how they can help.”

You can watch a livestream of the Ness’s keynote speech and the subsequent panel discussion here.  “Charm City” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Written and reported by IAM Lab Editorial Assistant Richard Sima. Richard received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and is a science writer living in Baltimore, Maryland.