‘Charm City Kings’ Turns the Baltimore Underground Into a Mythic Terrain 

The underground in any society gives off a romantic air, a feeling of genuine intrigue. Living outside of the margins has the appeal of defying the rules, and a taste of freedom. “Charm City Kings” has that spirit in every frame. It’s an urban film focused on a West Baltimore subculture where dirt bikes command respect in Black working class neighborhoods, because they carry the allure of spectacle and rebellion. 

Director Angel Manuel Soto introduces us to a West Baltimore middle school kid called Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), who gets by with his single mother, Teri (Teyonah Parris). Mouse works at a local animal hospital for peanuts, but it keeps his life stable, especially after the tragic death of his older brother Stro. But Mouse also harbors other dreams connected to The Ride, a summer tradition where every Sunday riders show off their skills on dirt bikes and ATVs. 

“Around fall 2017, if I remember, right after the passing of Hurricane Maria over Puerto Rico, that’s when I got the script,” said Soto, “That’s when I got really compelled,” Soto, a Puerto Rican native, told Entertainment Voice. “Mouse’s coming of story resonates with almost all of the kids who grew up in marginalized communities like myself…Puerto Rico, being an island left for dead in the middle of the Caribbean, and Baltimore, also left for dead, I felt we had more stuff in common than differences. Being able to see myself in the character of Mouse, I felt this was the right opportunity to tell a story about marginalized kids from the perspective of someone who is part of that community at the same time.”

Joining Mouse to gaze at these impressive figures are his friends, Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis). For a moment Mouse’s attention gets diverted to Nicki (Chandler DuPont), who has just moved into the block. Defying the adults in his life constantly trying to shape him, including a would-be mentor cop, Detective Rivers (William Catlett), Mouse seeks out the Midnight Clique, the most infamous and admired local rider crew. The crew’s most notable figure, Blax (Meek Mill), takes Mouse under his wing with promises of building his own, pristine dirt bike. Yet this could also pull Mouse into a more dangerous underground where there’s money to be made in certain forms of contraband. “It quickly solidified in my head that this was something incredible to be a part of,” Di’Allo Winston said. “I did a chemistry read with Kezii and Donielle and that was magic. It was almost as if we had known each other forever.” 

“Charm City Kings” is a work of fiction pulled from fact. The original inspiration comes from the 2013 documentary “12 O’Clock Boys” by Lotfy Nathan, which chronicles the world and exploits of West Baltimore’s illegal dirt bike riding. “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” director Barry Jenkins then conceived a dramatic take on the material, which was molded into a fuller screenplay by Sherman Payne. Soto approaches the material with enough grit but also films West Baltimore as a place where cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi can find the lyricism in everyday life. “Being in the environment in which the story takes place, that being Baltimore, where we shot, was really helpful as an artist to pull from the everyday external things…I watched the documentary more times than I can count. I looked at a lot of footage of kids from West Baltimore talking about their love of bikes. I studied a lot of Baltimorians who are social media influencers, and talked to a lot of the writers who were part of the film. I felt I was preparing for the role before and during the filming of the movie,” said Di’Allo Winston. 

Critics who have dismissed the movie’s narrative as just another urban drug trade flick are completely missing the point. Soto is framing the lives of neglected corners of our republic with an almost mythic lens. When Mouse takes Nicki to see the Ride there is genuine grandeur in how the riders are introduced, soaring and doing tricks, and then the Midnight Clique appears with twilight in the background, like an image out of a Western. Crime is not what appeals to someone like Mouse, but the rush of sensing you can be great and heroic even in a community lacking resources. “One of the things that I think connects [Puerto Rico and Baltimore] is that the same person or the same organism that promised protection has left them for dead,” said Soto, “so we are the bastard children of the same stepfather in a way. We are all related and are just a boat stop away, that’s the only difference between us. Beyond that and the intersectionality that I grew up with, is the fact that the same poisons and same darkness that roams impoverished or marginalized communities are usually the same: Violence, drug wars, drug abuse, lack of mentorship, etc. I used to do a lot of journalism before and what I took pride in doing was that I liked to embed myself and be with people before I put the camera on them. I never liked to be the one to share my opinion on a matter, but let them speak their truth and I’ll just make it look appealing. I come from an emotional point of view, a feelings point of view, and a feelings point of view that really centers on the authenticity of the place where we’re at.”

Juxtaposed with the exciting dirt-bike sequences, which are flawlessly edited to the point where we can’t tell when Soto switches to stunt doubles, are storylines entertaining on their own with how vivid they come across. Jahi Di’Allo Winston, who has appeared in great films like “Queen & Slim,” breaks through in this role where he is so full of personality and presence. “Every day was something (laughs). It was a very high maintenance environment and a very demanding shoot. Lots of bikes, lots of moving parts. I personally feel like I was added to the middle of a circus. It definitely sharpened my instrument everyday trying to get into character while there’s just thirty bikes circling you in the street. I loved it, I loved every minute of it. Well, not every minute (laughs), there were some minutes where I was like, ‘ok, I’m ready to go home!’ But it was a lot of fun,” said Di’Allo Winston. 

“It is every director’s dream to have such a powerful cast that has a healthy balance of professional actors, trained actors, and actors from that community coming together to form something special,” said Soto. “The characters that didn’t have so much training in acting, or it was their first time acting, they were receiving encouragement from the seasoned actors. Through that ping-pong of ideas and experiences, they were able to build the characters that you see right now.”

Grammy-nominee Meek Mill is also a standout, not overplaying the role of Blax but making him both enigmatic and empathetic. Di’Allo Winston remembers the rapper flawlessly entering his role. “Meek came to us about a month or so after we started shooting. He slid into it really great. He was doing other things while filming the movie and he was really great at sort of taking both hats on and stepping into the character, and getting better as the filming process proceeded. I think he’ll impress a lot of people with this role. He’s so organic onscreen and has this really keen, innate sense of acting. He can pull from different things in his life. There’s one scene where we’re in it together and it was very emotional and he sort of grabbed me, and I fully connected with him in that moment and felt it was the first time in the filming process that we really connected. It was a beautiful moment.”

Soto, who has made films about the common people’s struggles in his native Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, uses classic crime movie techniques to make a movie where the aim is never to glamorize outlaw life, but demonstrate how it is an attractive alternative. Even the drug dealing is very low key, with no close-ups of the product or of anyone even using it. For Soto it was important to be sincerely immersed in the West Baltimore community. “Being able to feel welcome by the community in Baltimore, to be taken under their wing, to feel like one of their guys, that type of warmth that you see in this community is the same hospitality you get in Puerto Rico. It is more the things that unite us, whether bad or good, than the differences.”

Mouse and his friends have few avenues for real income, and their parents also operate in the same terrain of kill or be killed. The world of the Midnight Clique seems like a glossy escape. But could Soto himself be a rider? “I wish man! I wish! I have fear of the streets and respect of the water,” he said, “there are certain things I don’t like to mess with, especially when you cannot control the variables, like cars swinging over. So for me I’m like, eh, with my luck and my balance, I’ll be on the floor in no time.” 

“Charm City Kings” is about characters lacking that sort of restraint, finding their place among margins that also promise an adrenaline rush. “We’re all trying to find ourselves in this really chaotic storm with everything that’s going on right now,” said Di’Allo Winston of the film’s wider significance in a tumultuous time. “The great thing about ‘Charm City Kings’ is that it’s timely but also timeless. I think this is a story that 20 years from now, or 10 years from now, will be relevant and you’ll be able to go back and watch to see where we were at that time.” 

Charm City Kings” begins streaming Oct. 8 on HBO Max.