Crimes and Amiss Demeanors
Local Director Dramatizes Baltimore's Low-Rent Criminal Element, Where the Cell Phone Is More Lethal Than the Gun
Of all the characters in the low-budget gangster movie Charm City, director Derick Thomas plays the one misfit: a successful African-American lawyer who stands apart, speaks the King’s English, and has an office in a 19th-century mansion built for a French Ambassador. His brother Jay, a bartender, needs legal help, but he’s too proud to ask him for it.
Thomas isn’t a lawyer, but he fits the role. Sitting in his North Howard Street house, which doubles as his Da Vision Pictures production headquarters, he has the slow, careful diction of someone who’s been through the wringer. A pile of video equipment is on the floor of his otherwise empty kitchen. Editing equipment and computers are scattered around the living room. A shelf boasts the 2004 award he received for Charm City from the Urban Mediamakers Film Festival in Atlanta. Looking around his room, Thomas is good-humored but also a little frustrated.
He’s already having problems with distribution. The Charm City DVD came out April 4 via Venture Distribution, a California-based distributor in financial trouble. Venture was acquired by First Look in March and then filed an out-of-court alternative to filing for bankruptcy. But Charm City still made it into stores across the country. “The feedback’s great in Baltimore,” the thirtysomething Thomas says. “But now I hear they’re bootlegging it. Come on . . . it’s like tearing the leaves off a growing flower. It’s got everything to do with the mind state.”
Thomas doesn’t sound mad or even that surprised. As he puts it, there’s nothing like the experience of filming in Baltimore to bring you back to earth. Thomas admits that when he filmed his screen debut in Charm City, even his own attitude needed a little adjusting.
“Actually, it rained like hell the day we filmed my scene,” he says. “If I’m going to be in one of my movies, I want to look good. I was trying to be all big-headed, so I was trying to get a Lamborghini. The Lamborghini didn’t happen. So I had to get filmed standing at the window looking out into the rain.”
In his relationship with Baltimore, Thomas is something of a prodigal son. He grew up in West Baltimore, near Lexington and Fulton streets, living with a surrogate Trinidad-born father. He traces his days as an aspiring director back to childhood. “I’ve been carrying a camera around since I was 4 or 5,” he says.
After Thomas graduated from Morgan State University with a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications in 1998—he returned to receive his master’s in telecommunications in 2004—he moved to New York to work as a cameraman and creative specialist for news stations. After a few years filming news and documentaries and a gig with the ABC affiliate on the Eastern Shore, he returned to Baltimore to pursue directing.
“I said either I could do what I love to do,” he says, “or get a steady job in news, get a house, and get married.”
Thomas came to Baltimore in 2001, armed with his own production company, Da Vision Pictures. Setting up in his Charles Village apartment, he began filming music videos for hip-hop groups, including La Petit Jessica and Philadelphia Freeway, and local musicians such as JI-900, Mullyman, Little Clayway, Norm Skola, and Sonny Brown.
“I guess I just wanted to help local artists look a little more professional,” he says. “A few of them got onto BET. It was great. The hip-hop scene started to bustle. That’s how I got to be known in Baltimore, as the guy who does music videos.”
But Thomas also wanted to be known as a director. The concept of Charm City, he says, started coming together in 2001. It was initially planned as a TV series, given his experience as a television cameraman. Having spent his life in the projects and Baltimore’s black community, he knew the setting. But in a city where crime series are dominated by The Wire and Homicide, he had a tough time finding takers for another gangster idea.
“HBO or people like that wouldn’t take any of our stuff,” he says. “When you’re unknown, you don’t really have a record, they’re not going to take a chance on you. You’re not Barry Levinson, you’re not David Simon, you’re not John Waters.”
Thomas didn’t have $1.5 million either—what he estimates a two-hour movie version of Charm City would cost. If filmed, he muses, “this could have really been a great movie. It would probably be out in theaters.”
Instead, he made do with a Panasonic digital-video camera, “which has a great television look,” Thomas says. With $75,000 culled mostly from video production work, he began work on Charm City in 2003. All his actors came from Baltimore. Two of the three principal actors—Jerome “RO” Brooks and Aquil Oseitutu—had experience in local indie films. Star Spangled, a music producer with roots in New York, made his motion-picture debut in the movie. Even without salaried actors to pay, though, Thomas found he had to cut and paste to accommodate rising costs.
“The first thing I realized is that, Lo and behold, this is going to cost a lot,” he laughs. “Halfway through the first hour [of running time], we’d already spent $35,000. So we decided to cut the story in half and added a few elements.”
The movie’s several subplots revolve around the three friends—Jay (Brooks), Rodey (Oseitutu), and Sean (Star Spangled)—-who own a bar, VIP, at Monroe and Pratt streets in West Baltimore. After years of dealing on the streets, they’re trying to use the bar to settle down. But it’s not easy. Over the movie’s two hours, the trio deals with several complications: a small-time dealer who is stepping on their territory, a friend with HIV, and a city inspector who threatens to close down their bar.
“These are stories that everyone who has been through this situation can relate to,” Thomas says. “We told the urban story, the underside of Baltimore that you don’t see unless it’s in a police blotter.”
When the inevitable comparisons to The Wire come up, Thomas is quick to point out the difference. “You know, I have to say this, Charm City and The Wire differ totally,” he says. “And it’s not by mistake. We’re trying to humanize African-Americans in a way that it hasn’t been done on television.”
Law enforcement isn’t really the focus of Charm City, he says. Instead, the plot hinges on small-time drug deals and power struggles in West Baltimore. If The Wire deconstructs the crime, Thomas says he is more interested in the social pressures and obligations that link small businesses and drug dealers.
If anything, Charm City’s plot line deflates the gangster myth. The crimes have more to do with misunderstandings and arguments than control over influence. Instead of guns, cell phones are the weapon of choice in this story: Rumors get spread, reputations are destroyed, and trash-talking gets magnified into personal insults as the movie progresses.
“It’s the way it happens,” Thomas says. “Some person says something behind somebody else’s back, then they hear about it and say, ‘He said that about me?’ Then all of a sudden, there’s conflict, and there’s violence. That’s how a lot of guys end up getting murdered. They come from these small disputes and total miscommunication.”
In Charm City arguments are about drugs, women, or business, but they thrive on misunderstandings. In one scene, Sean, a womanizing Puerto Rican, almost gets himself killed fooling around with his friend Nat’s ex-girlfriend Treasha. When the news spreads by cell phone, Nat hears about it and breaks into Treasha’s apartment, attacking Sean with a knife. Treasha stops the fight. Then Nat reveals that he has just been diagnosed with AIDS and has been trying to do Sean and Treasha a favor by keeping them apart.
If such plotting slows the pace down a bit, Thomas says that’s because his characters are dealing with real life in Baltimore. Whether they’re selling drinks or nickel bags, they’re constantly dealing with the inconveniences of life in a not-so-big city: interacting with building inspectors, paying bills, trying to keep their reputations intact.
“You notice, when you look at it, there’s not a whole lot of money,” Thomas says. “Back in the early ’90s, when Baltimore had kingpins, they were making real serious money. The big drug dealers like [The Wire’s Avon] Barksdale were running neighborhood blocks and communities.”
The Wire’s primary consultant, Ed Burns, was a homicide detective involved in the prosecution of major drug gangs in the early ’90s. It makes for gripping television, Thomas admits, but it’s not what’s going on in the Baltimore streets anymore.
“We’re talking about now,” he says. “The big drug dealers are gone. Now you have cells, they sell on one or two corners, and they make about $35,000 every two months and split it amongst themselves. They save a little. It’s their job. They’re not rich, but they will kill over it, because it’s how they survive. It’s their corner.”
In this small city, frustrations explode. In one scene, Sean, while sitting on a park bench in Towson, delivers a rant about Baltimore that sounds like it comes straight from the director’s mouth:
Living in Baltimore is crazy. You got dudes running around like gangsters, shooting and killing everybody who’s just like them. We’re the VD capital of the world—every other person is HIV+. The only place worth seeing is the harbor. Schools is effed up. And to top it off, they’re moving all the blacks out of the city. I don’t know why they call it Charm City.
“Yeah,” Thomas laughs. “I know it’s speechy, but it’s almost a common thought how the city responds to us. You don’t see people writing it to the newspapers, or anything like that, but that’s what they feel is exactly what’s going on. It may not be true, but if people think it, then it has to be addressed. [Mayor Martin] O’Malley probably doesn’t agree, and maybe he’s right. But if a mass of people are thinking this, then it’s an issue. We wanted to address that.”
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