In the elevator taking us to the fifth floor of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., Mayor Brandon Scott told me he thinks I’ll find the presence of former Gov. Larry Hogan in a new documentary about Baltimore’s top official quite interesting.
He was right: the Republican’s refusal to meet with Scott for months after his win in the 2020 Democratic primary was posited by Gabriel Paz Goodenough, the director of the new documentary “The Body Politic,” as one of Scott’s primary challenges during his first year in office. The film, which struck me as a broad meditation on Scott’s group violence reduction strategy and the people at the heart of it rather than a political thriller, made its North American premiere on Sunday afternoon at a screening at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., as part of the DC/DOX film festival.
It draws on hundreds of hours of footage collected during Scott’s Democratic primary race through the spring of last year, tracing the mayor’s journey in creating and implementing his group violence reduction strategy. (Disclosure: I was in a handful of those hours; Goodenough recorded interviews I did with Scott and former Mayor Sheila Dixon. I am not prominently featured in the final cut.)
“I thought I was going to make an election film,” Goodenough told an audience at a panel after the screening, recalling how he followed Scott, Dixon, TJ Smith and Thiru Vignarajah during the crowded race. “Unfortunately, the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic happened. ... and we decided we want to follow the change in City Hall after.”
Goodenough — and his film — were not subtle about his feelings about the mayor. “Fortunately, Brandon won,” he said.
So what does the documentary depict?
“People need to see their elected officials as people, which is why I decided to do it,” Scott said after the premier.
The film does not exactly pull back the curtain on Scott’s personal life: The large majority of the 39-year-old’s screen time features him on the job in City Hall or in communities, which the mayor and his aides would argue is an accurate reflection of how he allocates his time. At a question-and-answer session during a classroom visit at an elementary school, one perky child asks the mayor: “How is your life?” The mayor answers simply, saying it’s great because he gets to be the mayor of our beautiful city.
But there are a handful of glimpses into Scott that were new to this City Hall reporter, like his decision to remove a towering painting from the walls of City Hall that has a white man in the forefront and a small, enslaved Black boy in the background. “You don’t have to be gentle with that,” Scott quips as workers slowly lower the painting to the ground.
Most of the film is concerned with Scott’s anti-violence efforts: namely, the group violence reduction strategy. The documentary shows brief clips of Scott convincing statehouse and federal elected officials that the form of deterred focus is the right way to curb Baltimore’s homicide and shooting rates, setting up Hogan as the antagonist who refuses to discuss the policy with the mayor or even meet face-to-face.
The governor, who only appears through news media clips, tells viewers, among other things, how “woke politics that defund the police” will only harm Baltimore. Scott, in turn, begins telling reporters at news conferences that the governor simply will not talk to him. When the mayor is finally asked to Annapolis, news crews are waiting for him outside, ready to record his entrance to meet Hogan.
The meeting, which was not filmed but recorded over audio, is relatively tame. “I was very impressed, the mayor had put a lot of thought into this strategy,” viewers hear Hogan say. Interesting, indeed. The film does not touch on Hogan’s departure from office and Democratic Gov. Wes Moore’s election victory.
If there is another antagonist in the film, it is certain members of the media. There is a supercut of Fox45 reporters asking Scott critically framed questions about GVRS; in one scene, activist Erricka Bridgeford chastises a different reporter for how they frame their questions.
But the documentary fails to make the crucial point that producer Dawn Langford did during a panel after the premiere. “Sinclair tried to influence elections,” she said, referring to the nation’s largest television broadcaster’s must-run segments. But you wouldn’t learn from “The Body Politic” that Fox45 is owned by Sinclair, or that a Sinclair executive has funded a successful ballot measure that sets term limits for City Hall politicians and an unsuccessful attempt to create a mayoral recall.
Where the film excels is in capturing the terrible crescendo of violence and the impact it has on the mayor, anti-violence activists and everyday residents. A lingering shot shows a grill with burgers and hot dogs still sizzling behind crime scene tape. When Dante “Tater” Barksdale is introduced as he drives around the city talking about GVRS, members of the audience grimaced, knowing that the film would later show the aftermath of the terrible tragedy of his death.
The film also depicts Bridgeford and public safety official Shantay Jackson as they are tasked with implementing portions of GVRS.
“The Body Politic” has not yet been acquired by a distribution company, which would oversee a broader screening schedule. For now, those curious about Scott, his vision and Baltimore’s anti-violence activist scene will need to monitor film festival schedules for the chance to view the documentary.