David Simon and George Pelacanos are amongst the most respected collaborators on TV. The Wire remains unmatched as a police drama about the complexities of a war against drugs and drug money on a city’s streets. They return to Baltimore, the home of The Wire for all its seasons, to create We Own This City, adapted from the non-fiction book by the same name. Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton had covered the downfall of a unit of corrupt policemen, namely the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), an elite unit of the Baltimore Police Department.
Fenton’s book is prime material for a relevant story about the disconnect of law enforcement from ground realities and systemic corruption within the police. HBO spotted its merit and approached Pelacanos, a reputed crime novelist and screenwriter, to adapt it. He in turn insisted on bringing Simon on board, along with some writers from the team of The Wire, because he believed in good karma.
Going back to Baltimore was familiar territory for both co-creators, but this context is very specific and recent. It follows up on the shocking custodial death of Freddie Grey (2015) and riots that followed in the city against the police. All members of this unit were arrested and sent to prison. Its ring leader, ace officer Wayne Jenkins, got the maximum sentence and never spoke up. While this incident of sending the police to jail got nationwide media attention and sparked discussions on social media across the world, We Own This City focuses on the rot within an institution. This goes beyond taking money, hitting suspects or general prejudice and violence. It reflects a mindset of ruling by the baton and gun, which will take decades of re-conditioning of police officers.
Simon and Pelacanos introspect this aspect by introducing the character of civil rights lawyer, Nicole Steele (Wunmi Musaku), from the Department of Justice. While investigating police apathy and human rights violations in the city, her point of view oscillates between incredulous and cynical. Of African American origin and armed with the might of the federal government, eventually, she can do little but listen, observe and record. Her questions bring widespread insensitivity and the dilemma of policing a drug prone city in focus. Without overstating it, this series makes it’s points clear and pertinent.
A second creative collaboration has brought value and camaraderie is that of Jon Bernthal and Reinaldo Marcus Green, the director. Both delivered a winner of a film with King Richard, with Bernthal playing coach Rick Macci. We Own This City opens with a riveting monologue from Wayne Jenkins, the ring leader of police corruption with GTTF, while addressing new recruits at the police academy. The sheer casualness of his approach towards everyday violence shows the problem- that police and people on Baltimore’s streets are polarised. Bernthal met police officers, rode with them, met the fallen hero Jenkins, his drug selling partner, and victims of violence to understand the landscape and has inculcated that in his performance. Marcus Green absorbed the reality on ground by interacting with locals and incorporating the city’s specific cultural and linguistic quirks in the story. Josh Charles, whose performances as racially prejudiced, violent cop Jon Hersl is bang on and absolutely different from his leading role as a dashing lawyer in the Good Wife, has incorporated experiences from his days of growing up in Baltimore. Actors ad-lib and dialogues feel like a conversation throughout, as writers give room for others to improvise.
In this series, the GTTF runs roughshod like a gang of goons and robber, wrongfully detaining civilians, roughing them up in acts of racial prejudice and sometimes, stealing from them. Funny incidents like Jenkins robbing a stripper also point to the darkness of its setting. Planting guns and drugs, beating up people and pinning the blame on them as aggression against police, they acted without fear of consequences or the law. Keeping in mind parallel narratives and the series’ serious tone, Simon and Pelacanos have not written the show to acts. Instead they let the shock value of what actually transpired evolve through testimonials of arrested police officers or their colleagues. The story feels like a lived experience because it maintains a regular tone and matter of fact. Actors from The Wire also return in this show, but in very different avatars.
America has witnessed multiple incidents of gun violence, racial violence and racial prejudice on it’s streets over the last decade. The police force in different states has been called militarised with calls to disband the police entirely. We Own This City steers clear from taking an extreme position. Instead, it balances the fine art of reflecting experiences from both sides of the fence, underlining the fact that police work can’t focus on targets and results, but should be about helping and protecting citizenry at all levels.
While writing this mini-series with their team, Simon and Pelacanos were focused on just one detail- people of Baltimore shouldn’t look at it and say ‘this is bullshit’. It isn’t. it is much more than just a series about dirty cops. We Own This City is a disturbing comment through real incidents that makes you introspect on the power of guns and a badge anywhere; and how an entire system work towards protecting those that commit wrongdoing in the name of a greater good. And that is its biggest victory.