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Straight Time

Omar and Pete Takes A Sober Look At Two Ex-Inmates Trying to Re-Enter Baltimore

Slawomir Grunberg
OUT ON THE STREET:(From Left) Leon “Omar” Mason and William "Pete" Duncan in the new documentary film Omar and Pete;
(Above) Mason and Duncan in more troubled times.

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted 10/26/2005

Omar and Pete airs Oct. 30 at 10:30 p.m. on Maryland Public Television.

Anyone who has ever channel-surfed knows about the Baltimore crime drama as a thriving subgenre, thanks to popular classics such as Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Corner, and HBO’s ongoing The Wire. Quietly, our city has also begun to turn heads toward a burgeoning sub-subgenre: the Baltimore crime-drama documentary. In 2003 came director Liz Garbus’ memorable Girlhood, which focused on two teenaged Baltimore girls’ experiences with the local juvenile justice system. Now, as the season-closer for PBS’s annual P.O.V. documentary series, comes director Tod Lending’s Omar and Pete, a riveting and at times heartbreaking piece of nonfiction that poses many unflinching questions about addiction, the war on drugs, and, above all, inmates’ re-entry into society.

Omar and Pete “evolved out of a previous film that I made called Legacy,” says the 46-year-old Lending, speaking over the phone from the offices of his Chicago-based film-production company, Nomadic Pictures. “Legacy is about an African-American family that I followed for five years in the projects here in Chicago. And not by choice but by circumstance, that project ended up focusing on three generations of women. The reason men aren’t really present in the film is because most of them were incarcerated.”

The glaring and painful void left in these families convinced Lending to next focus on incarcerated African-American males re-entering their families and communities. “I didn’t want to tell the story about a couple of guys getting dropped off on a corner with 25 bucks in their pocket,” Lending says. “I wanted to tell a story where a couple guys were going to come out and be given their best chance of making it—which meant that they were going to have a support system that was going to really be there for them.”

Lending found his best chance here in Baltimore. In 2001, he heard about a then-pilot program called Maryland Re-Entry Partnership, which promised its participants a wide array of resources ranging from drug treatment and career counseling to transitional housing and a two-year commitment from case managers.

Within this program’s earliest pool of participants, Lending met the charismatic Leon Omar Mason. Omar, as he’s called throughout the documentary, had led a life plagued by crime and addiction; 47 years old at the movie’s start, he hadn’t been out of prison for more than six months over the last 30 years. Despite this checkered past, the thoughtful, dignified Omar we meet boasts a palpable dedication to beginning a new life. He’s taught himself to read Arabic so that he can recite the Quran in its original tongue. He also has ambitious plans for self-employment, and has reconnected with both warmth and humility to family members such as his sister Sharon. One of the most touching moments comes when a tight shot on Sharon, who is tearfully testifying about the importance of having Omar back in her family, pulls back to reveal Omar by her side, also shedding tears.

While Lending prescreened nearly 100 possible subjects, Omar became his instant first choice. “There was an intensity about him that I found very attractive and interesting,” he says. “I felt a connection to him on a personal level. I felt like this guy is going to hang in there with me for two years. I mean, that’s asking a lot of a guy who’s been in and out of prison for 30 years, and who at that time was finishing up a 10-year sentence for armed robbery.

“He had been under the watchful gaze of cameras and guards and fellow inmates for years, and now here I was asking him to allow me follow him for another couple of years with a camera. But he seemed to really get it. He also had a nice, healthy ego, and I think that was part of why he wanted to do this. He wanted his story told. He felt like he had something to contribute to society—and I felt that, too.”

Omar and Pete unfolds chronologically, so some time passes before we meet William “Pete” Duncan, Omar’s roommate and mentor in the transitional house Omar moves into upon his release in 2002. Also a convert to Islam, also bearded, bald, and frequently bespectacled, Pete could pass for Omar’s slightly older brother, his beard flecked with just a few more gray hairs and his personality just a bit more private and reserved. The two have shared a friendship for decades, both in and out of prison, not to mention similar arrest records. When we meet Pete, he has remained outside of prison for nearly a year, by far his longest stretch of freedom in more than 30 years.

Both thrive for the first few months following Omar’s release. Before long, Omar opens a car-wash and a street-vending business, eventually reaching an important landmark: six months of freedom without recidivism. Meanwhile, Pete also remains on the straight and narrow, held up as an exemplar of re-entry to his peers.

It’s a striking example of what can be accomplished when real strides toward rehabilitation are made with prisoners both while behind bars and following their release. Despite so far only serving about 400 men out of the thousands who need help, Maryland Re-Entry Partnership director Rada Moss asserted during a recent interview: “We’re making a huge impact, because we have a recidivism rate of less than 20 percent over three years, which is compared to 52 percent for the state of Maryland over those three years. . . . This model works because of its intensity, because it’s very comprehensive, and because we have case managers and services that connect with communities in a way that makes sense.”

Unfortunately—and suddenly—Omar becomes part of that less than 20 percent who succumb to recidivism, transforming Omar and Pete from an upbeat success story into a wrenching study of personal and societal shortcomings. Soon after Omar loses his car-wash business, he disappears for a few days; when he resurfaces, he admits to slipping back into cocaine use. His case managers enroll him in intensive drug-treatment programs, but a tragic, difficult-to-watch downward spiral has begun.

Throughout, Omar argues that his drug use only hurts himself, and doesn’t merit incarceration. He echoes the voices around him that call addiction a disease, and insists that he remains dedicated to treating this disease in earnest, even as his support system begins to regard him as the boy who cried wolf.

You will have to come to you own conclusions about whether it makes sense to place someone guilty of a nonviolent crime against themselves (i.e., drug use) into an environment that many believe breeds violent crime and whether addiction truly is a disease whose sufferers merit treatment every time they relapse. While Omar and Pete, to its credit, doesn’t claim to have the answers to those tough questions, it’s an excellent conversation jump-starter.

Lending has his own thoughts. “Other people might get something else from it, but for me personally, I was really struck by the question of to what extent a man needs to take responsibility for his actions and for his disease,” he says. “What needs to be in place to help him, but also what does he need to do himself in order to take control of his life and in order to transform himself. I think that is what came into the foreground in this story, not by my choice, but by circumstance.”

Lending is already busy shooting another of what he calls longitudinal documentaries—movies for which he follows his subjects over a very extended period of time. His current project, titled Amy’s Crossing, follows a teenaged girl plagued by sexual abuse, addiction, and mental illness. As a father of a 10-year-old girl, Lending gravitated to a story tackling potential pitfalls of adolescence. And as with Omar and Pete, he’s working with a crew that rarely exceeds two people—generally himself and a cameraperson, or himself as cameraman with one soundperson. “I just try to blend in with the environment as best as possible,” Lending says. “And I try and develop a very close, intimate relationship with my subjects. I can’t do that with a lot of people running around and with a lot of manipulation of the environment.”

With Amy’s Crossing, Lending has extended shooting beyond his planned two-year period, because unfolding events haven’t yet allowed for narrative resolution, “whereas Omar brought shooting to an ending right on time, unfortunately.” Indeed, while Pete was not only able to watch the movie as a free man and even travels to speak at screenings, Omar’s fall forced him to watch the documentary’s final cut behind bars.

“We sat down and watched it together,” Lending says. “And there were a number of points where he cried. He was very moved by it. At the end I said to him, ‘Did I capture the truth of your story and the situation?’ He said yes. I said, ‘Is there anything you would have changed?’ And he said, ‘I wouldn’t have changed anything, except I wish that were there more scenes of me praying at the mosque.’”

Omar and Pete effectively rehumanizes a demographic—drug-addicted African-American male convicts—that society demonizes. Lending remembers one story that illustrates just how much mental pressure Omar was under upon his release. While struggling to both adjust to re-entry and break his drug addiction, Omar’s concern with self-discipline was sometimes overwhelming. At one point, Lending showed up for a shoot at Omar’s car wash a little later than planned, and Omar refused to let Lending shoot.

“We sat down,” Lending says. “And I said, ‘I gotta talk to you about this. What is going on with you?’ And he said, ‘You don’t understand. My schedule is my lifeline. The minute I deviate from my schedule, I’m vulnerable. And I’ve got to remain disciplined.’ That was where he was at, and I had to learn that.”

It’s this level of self-discipline and privacy, Lending speculates, that never wavered in Pete, and may have ultimately helped Pete succeed where Omar faltered. The power of Lending’s documentary is that while it doesn’t flinch from suggesting that Omar should take responsibility for his actions, it asks that its audience does the same. Omar and Pete likely will have many viewers wondering what else we as a society could have done to make the life story of Omar, a deep, caring man some would previously have feared or even reviled, turn out just as happily as that of his close friend Pete.

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