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The Body Politic

Baltimore's young and visionary mayor jeopardises his career and even his personal life by embarking on a crusade against chronic violence from the streets of his city - from Sheffield Doc Fest

Brandon Scott says about the War on Drugs-inspired policing in his city, one of the deadliest in the United States: “We’ve been doing this all my life, but violence is still here,’ . While the timespan to which he refers is not quite as long as one would expect – elected when he was just 36, he is Baltimore’s youngest ever black mayor – it’s true that decades of efforts to quell violent crime in the city have failed. His proposed solution, the Group Violence Reduction Strategy, aims to reduce homicides by reallocating police funds and working directly with the local community, a radical approach that meets enthusiasm and opprobrium in this new documentary.

The Body Politic opens with a noirish montage of night-time street scenes, perhaps an ironic homage to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) Scott’s faith in the people of Baltimore is the antithesis of Travis Bickle’s nihilistic desire to see the rain “wash the scum off the streets”. It goes on to cover a number of months in Scott’s life, starting with the build-up to his historic mayoral victory in 2020 and then taking us through his first year in office. As well as spending plenty of time with the man himself, we see the real impact of violent crime in his community through interviews with members of the public and volunteers in the local ‘Safe Streets’ programme.

The challenges Scott and his community face are great – early in the film we are told that the city averages 300 murders per year – while financial resources and support from other politicians are in short supply. Notable by his absence for most of the film is the Republican Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, who is seen on TV news repeatedly criticising Scott’s focus on long-term solutions, but fails to answer the Baltimore mayor’s calls for collaboration. Much of The Body Politic sees Scott struggling to make progress as gun crime rises and a face-to-face with the man he believes can have a decisive role in its reduction remains elusive.

Having been elected a few months after the murder of George Floyd, Scott’s story is replete with all the socio-political themes that have characterised American life for the past three years. The film is fascinating for its documenting the rollout of the types of radical policies most of us will only have read about online. While director Gabriel Francis Paz Goodenough makes no attempt to hide his support of the young mayor and his beliefs, he does well to avoid the didacticism that characterises much of activist cinema. In particular, his depiction of the people working on the front line, many of them victims and reformed perpetrators of gun crime themselves, gives a much-needed human face to the theoretical frameworks underpinning Scott’s ideology.

It is a shame then, that the film’s commitment to authenticity in relation to its human subjects is often undermined by a lack of transparency in its reporting of the facts. While Governor Hogan’s outright dismissal of Scott’s approach is frustrating, we don’t know for sure that he is wrong to be sceptical. It isn’t until the end of the film that we are informed of the successes of Scott’s administration, and even then Goodenough misses out key information, such as the part a $28 million increase in police funding, met with major criticism by Scott’s supporters at the time, might have played in his achievements. In picking and choosing what to reveal like this, the director gives those who disapprove of Scott’s philosophy, and there are many such people, a free pass to dismiss the film out of hand.

Activism and the documentary have been famous bedfellows for decades, and it’s no crime to use cinema to push a radical agenda. Where The Body Politic falls short is in withdrawing information and obscuring facts, making it far too vulnerable to criticism. Brandon Scott makes for a charismatic leading man, and throughout Goodenough’s film we come to understand how he has managed to unite his community and develop a passionately loyal following. The young mayor’s approach involves trusting his citizens to see the long-term benefits of his policies, even when the going gets tough – if only this film had the same faith in its audience.

The Body Politic showed at the Sheffield Doc Fest.

By Louis Roberts - 27-06-2023

Louis is a freelance writer and digital communications professional based in Liverpool. His love affair with independent film began at Manchester’s dearly departed Cornerhouse in the early 2010s, an...

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