Who owns this city? HBO’s new drama presents viewers with a multiplicity of factors that comprise twenty-first-century America, argues Martin Hall
From the moment HBO’s new crime drama We Own This City (2022) begins, you know you’re in good hands. A voice is heard, then a Baltimore Police Department task log being filled in comes on screen, dated January 2017; it implies that we are hearing the words of Sgt. Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) giving a lecture to trainees on the correct way to police, which indeed the next shot shows us.
Jenkins explains that winning fights against people who wish the police harm is not police brutality. The scene cuts to an unidentified police officer aggressively twirling a billy club as young African-American men look on. Through the cutting, the viewer is encouraged to identify with the fearful and frustrated looks of the young men, who can’t walk the streets without fear of violence and arrest.
As we hear the sergeant joke about the wrong sort of brutality, to laughs from the floor, comparing that with the importance of good intel, we see images of small-time drug busts and youths being put into police vans. He warns the audience that unnecessary violence will bring complaints and impede their careers, but that so long as they’re bringing in guns, shooters and drugs, their hands aren’t tied.
The next shot reveals the billy club-twirling cop to be a much younger Jenkins confronting a middle-aged black man coming out of a shop with a bottle of booze in a brown paper bag. We find out later that it is 2003. Quick cuts between the two are followed by a static camera long shot of the two facing off, almost a brief tableau vivant, with the older man resigned to what comes next. Jenkins smashes the bottle out of his hand with the club. The found footage titles, in both black and white and colour, of the show appear.
This opening section lasts around six minutes and sets us up superbly for what is going to come. We have fairly traditional social realist shooting on the streets, interspersed with a typical training scene, with what is said functioning as a duplicitous sound bridge between the elements. We know that we can’t trust what we see and hear. What this does is negate the tendency of classical narrative realism to resolve contradictions for the viewer in an easy-to-digest fashion, by instead encouraging the spectator to approach what they’re seeing dialectically and work their way to the truth. This is aided by the shifts in filmstock[i] in the titles, which also mitigate realist TV’s tendency towards simplistic narrative resolution.
Of course, we should expect nothing less from a series with David Simon’s name on it. Among other accomplishments, he was consultant and producer on Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999), which was based on his book, and writer, show runner and producer on The Wire (2002-2008), often cited as one of the best TV series of all time, in particular for its novelistic scope in a form often associated with narrative linearity rather than multiplicity. We can see We Own This City as another instalment in his attempt to understand the American system from a materialist and structural perspective, this time aided and abetted by novelist George Pelecanos. Unusually for a long-form TV narrative, all episodes are directed by the same person, Reinaldo Marcus Green.
Throughout, task logs and date stamps are used to orientate the viewer to different time frames and narratives: as well as the ones mentioned, we have the beginnings of an investigation by county officers in 2015 into drug dealers selling heroin that is killing people, which will lead them to corrupt cops; FBI interviews with arrested police officers in 2017; an investigation (2015-16) by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice into police violence led by Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku, a British presence, like Idris Elba and Dominic West in The Wire before her); and scenes from earlier in 2003, as well as 2004 showing a young Jenkins change from a well-intentioned cop into an unhinged oppressor of Baltimore’s youth, at the hands of older, corrupt cops. Further scenes from 2003 also lay bare the attitude of the senior officers and the city powers behind them: arrest kids on corners for any reason, get them off the streets, then they can’t kill each other. When we see a raid being carried out by the county officers in 2015, we know that the apartment has already been robbed by corrupt city police officers. One arm of the law is working against the other.
And what makes this multi-layered approach to narrative of even more interest? It is entirely based on the true story of the investigation of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force that followed the killing of Freddie Gray in 2015, who died while being transported into custody following his arrest for the legal possession of a knife. While six officers were charged, they were acquitted. In a scene where a large crowd of black youths has assembled following Gray’s death, we see Jenkins itching to ‘defend’ the force’s honour through violence. As the crowd chants “I can’t breathe”, his anger is palpable, and he jumps in with his club, with the other officers following.
As well as the killing of Gray, the show has obviously been made in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent rise of Black Lives Matter (founded in 2013). It is also post-Trump, who is mentioned in episode one by Ahmed Jackson (Ian Duff), a young lawyer at the Civil Rights Division while in conversation with Steele. He doesn’t believe he can win the Republican nomination. We can infer from this that the series is suggesting that Obama or Trump, police are corrupt, and young black men are murdered by them.
In the context of Gray (and by implication future police killings of black people), making the viewer work throughout to get to the truth is therefore an attempt to tell us something about the myriad factors that go into making America today. The system creates endemic poverty and a lack of opportunities for young working-class African Americans and corrupts those who are meant to be policing them, presenting us with the violence of the state – without any of them realising. Jenkins and other bad cops genuinely believe they are serving the greater good. The initial scene – and others – make this clear. The trainees are told that their own advancement is predicated upon them bringing in arrests, rather than based upon ensuring the safety of the city’s residents.
Meanwhile, we are told later that there are over twenty-four police officers who can no longer testify in court as they have been found guilty of perjury; but they are still serving officers. Prior to learning who Steele is, we see her filming an arrest from her car, as dozens of other people do the same. The police just walk away and leave the young man on the street, saying ‘police yourselves’ to the residents filming.
Who owns this city, then? The cops or the criminals? Does anyone know? Like Simon’s earlier dramas, it’s hard to answer the question, with no clear lines between the two groups. What separates them, of course, is one has the backing of the state, and one does not. While other parts of the state may attempt to hold the ‘bad’ parts to account, will they be able to? You should watch We Own This City as a drama that doesn’t give us simple answers but will instead leave you asking some of the right questions.
[i] Obviously, the show is shot digitally, but the use of colour and black and white still effectively functions as a shift in film stock for the viewer
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