What Baltimore gets when producers film here

“We Own This City” was a chance for cast and crew to tell their story

Published on: May 09, 2022 8:00 AM EDT|Updated on: June 13, 2022 8:35 AM EDT

The production of HBO’s “We Own This City” included a tremendous amount of Baltimore locals. Photo by Justin Fenton/The Baltimore Banner

In a brightly lit room, lined with metal racks for costumes, DaJuan Prince sat on the floor, hunched over to tailor the pants of an actor playing a police officer on HBO’s “We Own This City.’’

He often found himself in this position as a costumer on the set of the show that chronicles the real-life corruption and scandal of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force, now airing on the cable network.

It was a dream job for Prince, who is among thousands of Baltimoreans who landed gigs on the series produced by David Simon and based on the book of the same name by Justin Fenton, a Baltimore Banner investigative reporter.

As with many involved in the production, this was not Prince’s first experience with the string of Simon television shows taped in Baltimore over the years. He remembers fondly when “Homicide: Life on the Streets” filmed in his neighborhood in the 1990s. He keeps a timeworn photo of himself as a teenager with actress Kathy Bates on that set.

Watching all the action of that production, as trucks, cameras and film crews flooded the Lexington Terrace public housing units, opened his eyes to opportunities in television production. The connections he made on “Homicide: Life on the Streets” landed him a role as a production assistant on the set of Simon’s television series “The Corner.” Using the sewing talents his grandmother taught him, he made clothes that he would sport during the production. That prompted producer Nina K. Noble to suggest that he assist with the costume department.

That in turn led to work on Simon’s other project, “The Wire,” as well as other television productions.

Prince and others who have worked on Simon productions often refer to working with the crew as a family reunion. Even in the face of COVID, an estimated 5,000 local residents worked as background extras alone, according to Noble and those who cast for the show. Other jobs included production assistants, location scouts, stuntmen and more.

Noble says she and Simon aim to hire locally every time they film in Charm City to create opportunities and enrich the story line. They want Baltimore to benefit from the productions.

“We’ve always tried to include lots of different perspectives and different people because it makes the shows better,” Noble said.

Thea Washington, a Baltimore native who helped cast for the show and acted as a liaison with the community, said hiring local residents allowed her the chance to include more African Americans in the production than she typically gets to do for other shows or commercials. It also makes the community feel a part of the show and the production less intrusive, she said.

“You can’t just come into a neighborhood and shoot here and inconvenience the locals,” Washington said. “No. You have to hire them. You have to give back to them. You have to respect the place that you come to.”

“We Own This City” feels personal to many hired to work on the series. With a cast and crew with deep ties to Baltimore, many knew of people who suffered from the brutal actions of the GTTF’s officers or other law enforcement sworn to protect and serve. Some had their own experiences with police brutality and misconduct.

New York Times bestselling author D. Watkins, a writer for the show, said it was common to see people congregate and share their experiences throughout the production.

The honesty and openness of these conversations gave people a chance to validate that what happened to them matters, he said.

“The beauty of it is that we survived, we made it through it, and now we’re getting the chance to be people who are controlling the narrative as far as what happened,” said Watkins, a creative in residence at The Banner.

James “Byrd” Mitchell, a locations assistant manager, said that he was once at a friend’s cookout when it was raided by the police. He says he was kicked in the face by an officer as he lay on the ground.

Prince recalled driving with police uniforms in his trunk for scenes on the set of “The Wire” when he was stopped, suspected of impersonating an officer and taken to central booking, where he sat for several hours before he was released without charges.

As part of his duties for “We Own This City,” Prince was tasked with watching GTTF body camera footage to inform his costume choices. He said he often saw people he knew being brutalized. He said he used his background as a mental health counselor in the Baltimore City school system to help bear watching the footage.

“I could only take but so much of it. … It was kind of traumatizing,” Prince said.

Baltimore rapper Young Moose, who played himself in the second episode of the series, was targeted by former BPD Detective Daniel Hersl, now in prison for his role in the GTTF illegalities. Washington was proud of Young Moose because his role in the show gave him a chance at redemption after Hersl tried to derail his career.

Noble recognized that the characters and scenes could trigger memories and emotions for the cast, crew and residents of the neighborhoods where they were filming, especially a depiction of the 2015 uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody. The Black Mental Health Alliance was brought on to provide support to cast and residents where there was filming.

Noble sees even more potential for filming in the city. Baltimore could benefit from a stronger film industry that brings more productions and jobs, and includes training for newcomers to the field, she believes.

There would also be other benefits. For instance, dozens of local charities received donations from the “We Own This City” production.

“These shows, they support so many local businesses big and small. … It packs a big punch when a film production’s in town,” said Baltimore Film Office director Debbie Dorsey.

Several people who worked on the “We Own This City” set have gone on to land other opportunities. Brock Liberto was part of the production’s COVID Health and Safety Production Assistant Program, which led him to production of another show he’s currently working on in Baltimore. “We Own This City” was his first experience working on a television production.

“My favorite part of [working on ‘We Own This City’] was everyone was willing to teach you their job as long as you were willing to learn,” Liberto said.

Some people said they knew little about getting into the filming industry until working on “We Own This City.” Many learned that there are more jobs beyond acting. All they needed was exposure.

“There’s a lot of talent in Baltimore,” Watkins said.” A lot of people deserve the opportunity, and when we get these opportunities we do extremely well.”