The best documentaries—like Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans or Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man—unfold with the narrative tension of the most outstanding fictional dramas. In Baltimore in Black and White, directors Emily Topper and Mary Posatko seem to have internalized this principle, slowly teasing out the details of their story so that the audience’s sympathies and understanding of events shift as the film moves forward.
The doc ostensibly explores the complex histories, identities, and tensions of black and white people in Baltimore. But rather than use facts and talking heads to tell the story, the filmmakers use Topper’s own family history—fascinating in and of itself. Topper, a white cinematographer, grew up in integrated North Baltimore and went to Roland Park Elementary. Her mother, a Marxist, dropped out of college to work at Bethelehem Steel and prepare the workers for a revolution that never came. She stayed there for 20 years. Growing up, Topper heard little about her mother’s father, whom she never met. He was shot and killed by three black teenagers in 1972 on his way to a meeting at Edmonson High School, where he was going to protest plans to build Interstate 70 through poor black neighborhoods in West Baltimore. The filmmakers aim to dissect the murder case and the trial that followed, in which three teenagers defended by famous civil rights attorney Juanita Jackson Mitchell were found not guilty.
The film’s most compelling scenes feature Topper’s many aunts and uncles (her mother was one of 12 children), including four who are in relationships with black partners, and Tommy, the youngest and the black sheep of the family, a gay Republican who has struggled with addiction. Their range of perspectives on the murder is fascinating: At first many of them, raised in a strong progressive background, seem embarrassed about the murder—as if its occurrence runs counter to their worldview and sympathy for minorities. Tommy, on the other hand, is ashamed at his siblings’ lack of outrage and wishes the men put on trial were dead. As the film progresses, we learn more about the siblings’ feelings, which are not always as neat as they first seem and include many assumptions that turn out to be untrue. Along the way, the filmmakers doggedly investigate the case itself, tracking down judges and lawyers who were involved and, ultimately, one of the defendants; the results also shake many assumptions, including those of the filmmakers and, possibly, the audience itself.
Baltimore in Black and White is not a comprehensive look at race relations in Baltimore—for one thing, it would need a lot more black voices to be anything close to that—and it’s not trying to be. But in its meditation on one family’s struggle to come to terms with its own understanding and experience with how race is lived in Baltimore, it offers wisdom that speaks to anyone who has spent much time living in this painfully divided city.