In The Hack
Filmmaker Bernard Threatt Flags Down `Illegal' Rides--With His Camera in Tow
Last summer, Bernard Threatt spent countless hours standing on Baltimore street corners with a digital-video camera, his arm extended out over the curb, and his hand pointed downward in the tap-tap-tap gesture of a commuter looking for one of the unlicensed taxis that mostly service the city's black neighborhoods, otherwise known as "hacks." When a hack would pull up, he would videotape his entrance, ask the driver if he minded being filmed, and conduct interviews, all based around the seemingly basic question: "What is a hack?"
The end product, Threatt claims, is the city's first "hackumentary," Baltimore City Haks, completed late last year and screening this week at Threatt's alma mater, Goucher College. Eventually, Threatt says, he'd like to get the film produced by a premium channel such as HBO, but it's a work in progress.
"When I first got here, and I would ask people from Baltimore what they thought a hack was, it was amazing the answers," Threatt says over a beer at a North Avenue pizza joint. "People use it to pay their bills, to supplement their income, to get a quick fix. . . . Their struggle drives them to do what they gotta do. . . . Hacking is a B-more thing, through and through."
Threatt is a Washington native who came to Baltimore to study at Goucher. Afterward, he played semipro basketball with the Baltimore Blaze, of the National Rookie League, then worked as a floor director at Fox 45 News. He started riding in hacks right after college, he says, when he found himself without a car.
"This is crazy, this is absurd," he says. "Back in D.C., I'll stand on 16th Street, on Drugs Avenue, and try to do that--and you can't. D.C. was the murder capital of the country, then Baltimore was that, too. It was amazing to me that people were so willing to jump into a car with someone they've never met. Baltimore people have a disregard to fear--even the females I interviewed. . . . The B-more citizen ain't afraid of other citizens at all. I call it reckless abandon."
At roughly an hour long, Haks is far from polished. Most of it is shot with the grainy picture quality, shaky camerawork, and abrupt editing of a street documentary, and Threatt's voice is in it way too much, encouraging his subjects with laughter and asking leading questions about what hacking is. But it contains occasional snatches of potential, when the experience of hacks and their passengers truly looks like a seedy, dangerous, and desperate underworld.
One hack in the movie, a woman in her 30s, admits to being a broke, unemployed mother of two, living in Section 8 housing in West Baltimore. She's listening to a gospel station because she says it gives her hope. Another hack, a gap-toothed white man named Will, tells a number of disgusting stories about accepting blow jobs from doped-up strippers instead of money.
Much of Haks' footage between hack rides features spot interviews with people on the Block, downtown's red-light district, where Threatt used to be a familiar face, working as a bouncer at several strip clubs. These scenes are much more interesting for the backstories that are all over the faces of the men and women he chats with than for their responses to Threatt's frustratingly limited questions, such as "What is a hack to you?" and "Are all hacks drug-users?"
To Threatt, the reasons people hack and the reasons people trust hacks more than they trust licensed cabs is the most fascinating thing. But you don't get that aspect from his documentary, which is why it feels incomplete. That's why he keeps on filming his interactions with hacks and collecting material.
And so far, only five hacks have refused to be on camera when he rode with them. "It's dangerous as shit," Threatt says. "The driver could be a drug user, or the passenger could be. I was amazed that people picked me up, because I'm 6-foot-6, and do you see these dreads? I'm an imposing fella."
After the beer, Threatt steps out onto North Avenue with his camera and flags down a ride from Jeff, a 50-year-old car mechanic and York, Pa., native who drives a beat-up rag-top Buick Regal. He asks his usual questions as the car creeps eastward, then does a U-turn and ends up back at the corner of North and Howard: Why do you hack? Where are you from? How long have you been doing this? Threatt has an easy way with people, behaving as though he was chatting with someone he met while waiting for a bus. Jeff doesn't even notice the camera until about five minutes in.
His answers, though, are interesting. York is a nice place to settle down, but there's more going on in Baltimore, jobwise. He came here in 1996 and he hacks on his days off to pay the bills. Police officers sometimes pose as passengers and give out tickets if you charge them for a ride, so he generally doesn't pick up white people, and he knows all the loopholes--just offering a ride at first, then waiting until afterward to ask for cash. If you catch on that it's a cop, you can simply not ask for money, and avoid the $500 fine that comes with hacking.
"So you offering us a ride or are you gonna ask us for money?" Threatt asks, laughing.
Jeff laughs back. "Naw, I'm chargin' y'all."
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