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‘Charm City Kings’ director and producer explain what it took to make the film

“Baltimore is so specific. A lot of people don’t understand that. Anybody on the East, they all know, they know if you’re from Baltimore. They can hear it in your voice, they know your style, it’s so, so distinct,muses Caleeb Pinkett, executive producer of Charm City Kings.

“I just love what we were able to do for this city.”

Charm City Kings is an American drama film set in the heart of Baltimore, Maryland directed by Puerto Rican native Angel Manuel Soto. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2020.

Block parties, lively streets, the rev of a bike in the sharp summertime air. Charm City Kings opens with cell phone footage of a teenage boy, who we learn is named Stro. He’s working his magic on a dirtbike, surrounded by the Midnight Clique, led by Blax (Meek Mill).

As we track forward we see a younger boy with Stro; his little brother Mouse, who will go on to be our protagonist. Stro tells the camera Mouse is going to be the best one day.  We’re only a minute into the film, but the backdrop is already set. Goosebumps. 

We cut away from the footage to see our lead Mouse riding the bus, watching the video that we just witnessed. This puts us in Mouse’s shoes from the very onset of the film. Every step he takes from here on out, we take with him. 

“We haven’t seen anything like this in a long time… This could’ve been made in the 90s, like when you make a gritty drama,” passionately declared Pinkett.

In Charm City Kings, Jahi Di’Allo Winston plays Mouse, our boy protagonist, and Meek Mill stars alongside him as Blax.  Teyonah Parris, Donielle T. Hansley Jr., and William Catlett round out the main characters of a brilliant cast as Mouse’s mom, Lamont, and Detective Rivers, respectively.

Mouse is a boy that likes hanging out with his two best friends (one of which is Lamont), chasing girls, working as an assistant to the local veterinarian, and most of all, dreaming of riding with the Midnight Clique.

EP Caleeb Pinkett, director Angel Manuel Soto, and writer Barry Jenkins headed the project of adapting the 2013 documentary “12 O’Clock Boys,” into a motion picture. Thus, Charm City Kings was born. The drama is also executively produced by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.

This movie is all at once an authentic portrait of Baltimore, a tale of a boy pulled by opposite forces, forced to grow up far too soon in the shadow of a loved one.

And a remarkable achievement of raw storytelling, intrinsic to what it means to be a disenfranchised youth. We had the incredible pleasure to speak with Pinkett and Soto.

Caleeb Pinkett’s family is from Baltimore, and his inside knowledge of the area was paramount to setting an authentic tone for the film. Clarence Hammond, Pinkett’s producing partner, also played a major role, as a native of Maryland. 

“The opportunity to tell a homegrown story, something that is near and dear to my heart, with the connection to the city… as far as the authenticity and the specificity of Baltimore, that’s where I was needed the most.” 

Charm City Kings struck Pinkett as a story that needed telling, an allegory innately related to disenfranchisement and being black in America.  “Telling this kind of story, to me, is extremely important to reach the majority of African American people, where they can see a character that they really relate to.”

“They know that kid, and they know his friend, and they know that neighborhood, and they know that mama… To bring light to what most people are experiencing daily, was the most important part for me.”

Pinkett examined how disenfranchised youth of all races are forced to grow up at an especially early age. He explained that internal conflict can circulate in an impoverished adolescent’s head.

You’re 13, your lights are getting shut off. You can’t get a job, and if you do, you’re getting paid next-to-nothing. But there’s a guy on the street corner offering you a good amount of money to sell a little something for him.

“So it’s a terrible situation, but it’s a real temptation that most people without money deal with,” said Pinkett. 

Pinkett contemplated the life of a child rationing, breathing in the stale tobacco smell as their mother smokes cigarettes in the house, living a week eating the same pot of spaghetti each day, being forced to adapt to changing life circumstances at the flip of a switch. 

“What’s really interesting is that when you grow up like that, you don’t even recognize that you’re poor. Until somebody shows it to you. Because everybody around you is living like that,” said Pinkett.  Soto echoed this sentiment.

“When you’re a kid, you’re not really paying attention to how poor you are.” 

Soto grew up in economically-struggling Puerto Rico.   In directing Charm City Kings, in telling this story, Soto drew a nostalgic remembrance of his own childhood.

“As a person from Puerto Rico, I wanted to tell the story, not just in a nationalistic sense, but of a collective mindset of a forgotten youth that wants to be heard. I was able to see myself in this story, and [was] able to tell it from a very personal standpoint, as a kid who once was in Mouse’s shoes.” 

The process of directing a big-budget motion picture filmed entirely on location in Baltimore was no easy feat. In fact, Pinkett expressed how it was one of the most difficult things he’s ever had to do. 

It wasn’t enough to get the cast and crew on board. They needed the community behind them. “Baltimore is Baltimore. Residents don’t care about you making a movie. Some are happy, others are like ‘I don’t care, I’m walking through this shot, so what?’” 

“Talking loud in the scene, you’re like ‘ay can you please be quiet?’ They’re like ‘No! You gon’ give me some money? Hell no!’”

“I’m like ‘oh lord have mercy,’” said Pinkett amidst his evocative chuckles. 

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Barry Jenkins (award-winning director of Moonlight) set up the basic structure for the story of Charm City Kings. “But we needed to make it Baltimore,” explained Pinkett. And only by being on the city streets, breathing in the air, working with residents of the community, was this possible. 

Pinkett discussed how during a scene in the movie, police were escorting 50 bikers (male and female) back and forth from the set. But a month prior, the police task force was looking for half of the people riding the bikes in the shot that they were currently protecting! 

“That kind of outreach and a change in attitude to get behind a film was amazing.” Pinkett shared how a lot of the riders came up to him saying last month the cops were looking for them. 

“Now, they’re escorting me. Yo man, you forreal.”

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Such a beautiful day 😀

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Pinkett brought up the importance of hiring actors from the city, such as Chino Braxton, who plays Jamal. 

“That’s what I wanted, I wanted these actors that are from the city, that don’t have to act it, that live it. They were able to deliver an authenticity that just took it through the roof,” Pinkett gleefully recalled.

As a movie concerning bike riding, the team would have 40 bikes on set, and bikes are “essentially cash” in Baltimore. Not in Baltimore, it’s not just a dirt bike. Pinkett compared it to like a low-rider in LA. 

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On the first day of shooting, they were filming a scene where Jamal and the Clique rolled up to the liquor store, and asked Lamont if he wanted to make some money. They drove up and parked, but Braxton (Jamal) pulled Caleeb aside, asked if he could talk to him for a second.  “Ay man, I’m not going back around there.”

“What are you talkin’ ‘bout?” asked Caleeb. “There are some guys in the alley with masks on and guns on them. They finna rob us.” Sure enough, two men were waiting in the alley for them to come back around, and they were going to rob them for the bikes. 

“They’re like ‘We know you’re making a movie, but n**** we gotta eat too! So run that,’” Pinkett stoically recalled.

Then crew members started feeling unsafe, union reps started making inquiries as to the safety on set. Pinkett as the head producer had to balance all of this. 

“You can watch The Wire all you want, you can get an idea. And then take your ass down to Lafayette and Monroe, and you go ‘oh- oh, oh hold on!’ That’s Baltimore, you know what I’m saying?”

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New York City could long boast that its first elevated line opened for service in 1868, using cable-pulled cars that were soon replaced by diminutive steam locomotives that pulled the cars. And Chicago established “el” service in 1892, Boston in 1901, and Philadelphia’s Market Street El began transporting commuters and other passengers in 1907. But Baltimore’s 4,000-foot-long Erector Set-looking el — which stretched at its southern end between Saratoga and Lexington streets, where it made contact with the terra firma, and its northern end at Chase Street, where it landed on the surface of Guilford Avenue — has the distinction of being the first electrified elevated line in the country, according to noted rail and streetcar historian Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a retired CSX executive, who lives in Cross Keys. Here, a streetcar travels the Guilford Avenue Elevated line in 1947. The streetcar-only trestle extended from Saratoga to Biddle Street from 1895 to 1950. (Leroy B. Merriken / Baltimore Sun)

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The disenfranchisement of the people of Baltimore is unmistakable in the streets. Here is a city that is largely forgotten by the federal government, by society outside of Maryland in general.

And while Baltimore is unique in its characters, in their accents, in their styles, the marginalization of residents is not something unique to this city.  It is an occurrence throughout the entire world. 

“After visiting all around the world, and I did a bunch of documentaries within marginalized communities, including in Puerto Rico, I realized that there’s a Baltimore in every part of the world,” Soto told me.

Soto’s first film was La Granja (The Farm), a film set in Puerto Rico and centered around a boxer, a midwife, and a chubby kid, all dealing with the repercussions of the economic downfall on the island.

It was a “bleak” film and done “experimentally” as a way to show the real feeling of what it is like to be stuck on the island. 

As Soto further put it, “there’s barely any hope for us, due to many issues that go from the U.S. government to our own colonial mindset.”  Soto poured his heart out into La Granja and let his frustrations out the only way he knew how: putting pen to paper and paper to film.

The bleakness of life growing up in Puerto Rico struck Soto when he started working on Charm City Kings The story had shades of the despondency he grew up amongst, but it also offered an opportunity for salvation.  Speaking of CCK, he said:

“We wanted to make a movie that, yes, it lives in this reality, but in the end, it has an opportunity to show an outlet. In the end, there’s a conversation to be had about mentorship.”

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“XXXVI” 📸 x @graypicturesllc

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Soto passionately expressed this message, and Pinkett also gravitated to the idea. “I felt it was important to tell that story, but also, I wanted to show that there’s hope. That is why there is the character of Blax and Detective Rivers,” said Pinkett.

So often in coming-of-age movies, there is an adult role-model trying to mentor the adolescent protagonist. This film flipped the script and gave us two mentors. Not an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, but two complex characters that have their own motivation in leading Mouse through uncertain times.

Blax wants to right his wrongs; he is a man currently defined by his failures intimately related to Mouse. Rivers is inspired by Mouse and cannot live with seeing him go down the wrong path.

His dedication to keeping Mouse safe causes friction between Mouse and himself, and with his interference, Blax as well. One scene in particular between Blax and Rivers is one of the greatest of a film teeming with superb moments and showcases Meek Mill as a multifaceted artist breaking into film.

His acting chops are better than most anyone could imagine. 

“Take the good from both Blax and Rivers, and put them together. What if Blax and Rivers were that perfect person?” Soto pondered, wondering if the ideal role model exists in society and what that could mean for progress.

This movie has a message for everyone. You just have to peel back the curtain and understand it for yourself.

Mentorship is crucial for all children, even adults, but especially for children who grow up in neglected communities. In a city where it’s every-man-for-himself, what lessons is a kid going to learn about how to do the right thing? 

“These are the stories that the majority of black people in America face,” asserted Pinkett.

Pinkett stressed the importance of being able to tell a story that’s actually more relateable to black families than the luxurious lifestyle that is seen on Instagram, or in most big-budget movies set in Calabasas or some other affluent setting.

“You would never spend 30,000 on a watch, that’s why you like hearing Offset say it,” expressed Pinkett. 

I asked Pinkett what it took to get Charm City Kings just right.  “It was a labor of love,” Pinkett paused. 

“[It was] one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Charm City Kings is a gem of a film in its approach to shake stereotypes and authentically capture the true nature of a neglected city done wrong. Thrilling tension, authentic humor, and honest reflection of a marginalized community make this a generational classic.

“I just felt that showing hope in the midst of all that tragedy was needed,” said Pinkett.

Charm City Kings is set to release in the United States this fall on HBO Max (which launches May 27, 2020), WarnerMedia’s new streaming service.