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Clayton "Mr. C" Guyton holding a meeting in East Baltimore's Rose Street community in a scene from Marilyn Ness's documentary, "Charm City."
The Frame

Documenting the Hard Truths of Prison and Policing

At Tribeca Film Festival, new documentaries give voice to the incarcerated and communities struggling with crime.

Two documentaries premiering at this week’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York—Madeleine Sackler’s “It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It” and Marilyn Ness’s “Charm City”—address issues of criminal justice, but they do so in vastly different ways.

In Sackler’s film, 13 Indiana prison inmates, many of whom have been convicted of murder or attempted murder, are given cameras to record each other’s reflections. In “Charm City,” Ness takes a more traditional documentary approach as she explores tensions between the Baltimore Police Department and the communities it serves.

In “It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It,” Rushawn Tanksley is asked by a fellow prisoner at Pendleton Correctional Facility what title he would give the story of his life up to that point. Rushawn, who is serving a sentence for murder and aggravated battery, says he would call it “What If.” As in, what if he hadn’t grown up in Memphis? What if he hadn’t started selling dope? Would he still be on the streets, or would he be dead? By asking them to interview each other, the director gives the men, who have been stripped of the ability to make decisions about their lives, the power to tell their own stories.

She also gives the men the rare opportunity to control images of themselves, and of each other. Typically, prison officials control photographs of inmates, from mugshots, which many consider stigmatizing, to visiting room portraits, which are usually taken in front of the same institutional backdrop and show few traces of a prisoner’s personality.

To make her film, Sackler requested access to inmates at 15 different prisons; only Pendleton Correctional Facility agreed to allow her to equip the inmates with video cameras. She also convinced the prison administration to let her teach an intensive filmmaking workshop on shooting, incorporating music, and editing. To help the prisoners understand her line of work, she screened multiple documentaries for them, including “Murderball” and “Grizzly Man.”

In addition to featuring the interviews that the men conduct with each other, “It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It” is a meta-documentary that shows how the men determined the structure of the film. In one scene, the inmates discuss how they want to be portrayed.

“I don’t want us to get into making this feel like a sympathy type of thing, because I don’t want the kid seeing because oh, this guy made a mistake, he was abused, he was on drugs, his father went there. Let’s also tell the other story of, I chose to kill you,” says Charles Lawrence, one of the inmates.

A scene from Madeleine Sackler's documentary, "It's a Hard Truth Ain't It."

Sackler made the film in part because she felt the the country is at a crossroads on the issue of criminal justice. “Will we continue down this path of retribution and punishment, or will we reorient ourselves and start down a path of care and compassion?” she said in an interview. “I strongly believe that deeply understanding the drivers behind violence is the only way to start preventing it in the future.”

“Charm City” is a documentary about three years of escalating violence in Baltimore, which hit a record for homicides per capita in 2017. Marilyn Ness, the director, and Kate Chevigny, the producer, sought to better understand the divide between the police and citizens in the period after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody rattled the city in 2015. (Marshall Project reporter Justin George participated in the making of the film.)

Lack of trust in the police leads the residents of Rose Street, a community in Baltimore’s Eastern District, to take peacekeeping into their own hands. Led by Clayton “Mr. C” Guyton, members of the community work as violence interrupters, de-escalating incidents on the streets. Alex Long, one of Mr. C’s many “sons,” not by birth but by choosing, helps not only with gang mediation but also with planning activities such as trash collection for younger kids.

While Ness does not vilify the police, she believes that officers must do more to cultivate trust. “When people can’t or won’t call the police in times of crisis, street justice will fill that vacuum, and everyone becomes less safe,” she said.

A scene from Marilyn Ness's documentary, "Charm City."

In 2017, the Justice Department reached an agreement on a consent decree to address systemic problems in the Baltimore Police Department. It called for the creation of a community oversight task force; using tactics that defuse incidents and minimize the need to resort to force; and an improvement in responses to individuals with behavioral health disabilities.

Ness hopes that people watching “Charm City” realize that the criminal justice system isn’t working for anyone. “It’s certainly not working for poor communities of color in Baltimore, and, it turns out, it’s not working for the police either,” she said. “Everyone is exhausted. Everyone is living with unreasonable and unsustainable amounts of trauma and grief. If we really and meaningfully want to change the system, then we need to change it for everyone caught up in it.”