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Series Review: Though Not Without Script Flaws, “We Own This City” Engages and Horrifies Throughout

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 25th, 2022

Series poster: “We Own This City”

We Own This City (George Pelecanos/David Simon = showrunners; Reinaldo Marcus Green = director; 2022) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Baltimore, Baltimore. Bmore, the City That Reads, the unfortunate Bodymore and, yes, Charm City. You’ve not always fared that well in popular culture, easily portrayed as a city full of violence and crime. Then again, there is plenty of that, and good historical reasons for the continuing problems that plague the metropolitan area, from 1930s Redlining to the 1970s “War on Drugs” (ongoing to this day) and 1980s Reaganomics and beyond. Though every place is its own unique thing, Baltimore is hardly alone as a troubled American city. Still, thanks to journalist-turned-television-showrunner David Simon and hit shows like Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, to many viewers Baltimore is synonymous with urban terror. Make no mistake, however: Charm City is not sui generis, but symbolic of the nation as a whole.

In We Own This City, Simon returns with some of his The Wire colleagues, director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, King Richard) joining the team to helm all six episodes, each about an hour long. Based on the eponymous book by veteran Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, the limited series stars McKinley Belcher III (Netflix’s Ozark series), Jon Bernthal (King Richard), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Just Mercy), Josh Charles (Netflix’s Away series), Dagmara Dominczyk (The Lost Daughter), Jamie Hector (Marlo Stanfield on The Wire), Wunmi Mosaku (His House), and others. Filled with great performances, the show nevertheless suffers from overly polemical dialogue, written with an eye to the outrage everyone involved is dying to express yet without the ear to listen to how it sounds coming out of actual people’s mouths.

Jon Bernthal in WE OWN THIS CITY @HBO

Despite that not insignificant flaw, We Own This City remains engaging throughout, delivering a powerful attack on police corruption and showing how such an infection can easily spread (and be impossible to eradicate). Centering its narrative around Baltimore’s 2017 Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) scandal, the series follows the ups and downs, highs and lows of a would-be crack team of plainclothes detectives who completely lose sight of the ethical ball and become even more gangster-like than the ostensible criminals they pursue. They don’t all start out with illegal hijinks in mind, but one thing the show does exceedingly well is reveal the dangers involved in seeing all citizens (well, all Black citizens, that is) as suspects. If everything looks like a nail, then the hammer is the best tool.

But it’s about so much more than individual abuse of power, which is bad enough. These guys are absolutely terrible human beings, stealing money and drugs from their prey and then opting to under-declare the proceeds or not to declare at all. They just as often go after people peacefully minding their own business, figuring that those who are poor and disenfranchised (and Black) don’t stand a chance in court against them. And sure, complaints are filed and many of the arrested walk away without any charges filed, but these cops stay on the beat. Over time, the already tenuous trust between residents and law enforcement erodes even further.

Wunmi Mosaku in WE OWN THIS CITY @HBO

Structurally, We Own This City jumps back and forth in time, profiling the evolution of one Wayne Jenkins (Bernthal) from rookie to violent, psychopathic sergeant. The bulk of the plot proceeds in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s 2015 killing (at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department, or BPD), when the United States Justice Department (DoJ) is preparing a consent decree to reform the force. At the same time, the FBI is investigating possible misdeeds of the GTTF, joined by local (not corrupt) cops. As the evidence mounts, they start to bring their BPD suspects in for questioning. Some of them cooperate, others don’t. Jenkins remains defiant until almost the bitter end. By the conclusion it is clear, however, that though these particular souls have been caught and sentenced, nothing is really solved.

As terrific as so much of this may be (and it is), there’s no getting around the speeches given to the DoJ’s Nicole Steele (Mosaku) who, joined by a grizzled police instructor played by Treat Williams (The Great Alaskan Race), speaks major truth to power in the most pedantic way imaginable. It’s possible to agree with everything she says to Williams and he to her and still walk away unmoved. And then there is the whole Sean Suiter (Hector) problem. A former partner of Jenkins, Detective Suiter had moved from Narcotics to Homicide yet could not escape the impending GTTC investigation. A day before he was set to testify against his colleagues, he died of a gunshot wound, which the BPD says was self-inflicted and his family says was not. As shown here, the events are not just confusing, but nonsensical. There is playing to both sides and then there is this mess.

Jamie Hector in WE OWN THIS CITY @HBO

By the show’s final moments, many of its flaws recede into the general impression of hard-hitting dramatization of real-life events. There is much to admire in the effort. We need to reclaim our cities, turning them into something other than playgrounds for dirty cops (or cops simpy mad with bloodlust). There has to be a way to police the streets without contributing to the issue. And while there are few solutions offered here, we emerge clear about the roots of the problem. Let’s pull them out and plant something fresh, instead.

[We Own This City premieres on HBO April 25, 2022, at 9pm ET and Episode 1 plays at the 2022 Maryland Film Festival on Thursday, April 28, at 7pm, with cast and crew in attendance.]

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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