With Baltimore Rising, Sonja Sohn Brings Activism to the Forefront

by Eleanor Laurence


“If your heart beats the same way as mine, one nation under god and all that, how do you get a separate bill of rights?”
— Genard “Shadow” Barr

At a panel discussion at the 2017 Urbanworld premiere of Baltimore Rising, moderated by former Black Panther and Columbia University professor Jamal Joseph, director Sonja Sohn joined activists and documentary subjects Adam Jackson and Makayla Gilliam-Price, drug counselor Genard “Shadow” Barr, and Baltimore police lieutenant colonel Melvin Russell for a frank discussion on the themes of the film and the activism they hope it inspires.

Why this story:

Sonja Sohn: When the uprising occurred [in 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody], I saw an opportunity to tell the city’s story from a different vantage point. I kept hearing from everybody that we need to reframe our narrative. It just seemed that I was in the right place at the right time.

Getting people across the Baltimore community to share their stories:

Genard “Shadow” Barr: Baltimore is one large — incredibly large — dysfunctional family. And if you are not a member of that family, there’s so much you’re not going to see. Detective Kima [Sohn’s character in The Wire] got a lot of passage. Me trying to get these dudes to “share their narrative,” became easy, because they have Detective Kima coming in to make sure Baltimore is represented properly.

Mapping a distinction between individual and institution:

Adam Jackson: Often times, people don’t understand the institutional arrangement of racism and white supremacy, and how they operate in institutional capacities in the United States. It’s not about that particular officer, or individual black people who work in police departments, or even racist institutions. Who created these institutional arrangements, why are they there, and who do they serve? The question is, what are we going to do as black people to destroy how the system operates?

Considering the intersections of oppression.

Makayla Gilliam-Price: Angela Davis spoke at Johns Hopkins University and said black women suffer all the collateral damage of these movements and of these fights. As a black, queer woman, who’s also a student organizer and under the age of 18 for most of the documentary, it was always important to figure out how to activate a space for myself. Half my battle was internal. Making that contextualization in the documentary is completely necessary to the narrative of telling what black women go through in the struggle to save all black people in our community.

On the privilege granted by the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights:

Genard “Shadow” Barr: If your heart beats the same way as mine, one nation under god and all that, how do you get a separate bill of rights? It actually has no legal standing, because at what point do police officers cease being citizens? Your badge does not give you a pass to say, “OK, I make the law.” No. You are an officer of the law.

Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell: It was important to me to tell the narrative of who the police should be. Baltimore Rising gave me the platform to show other police that you really can be a great protector, but you gotta do it in a way that you respect your community and recognize that they are your extended family.

What they hope happens next:

Genard “Shadow” Barr: I hope it goes as far as documentaries go in the world of pictureland.

Adam Jackson: Nation build. The tendency is to start national and on a big level, but the thing is, if we can’t fix places like Baltimore, then there’s no hope for the rest of the country or anywhere for black people.

Makayla Gilliam-Price: My largest hope is that resources are flooded to Baltimore. If we’re fighting against the institution of racism, we need a black institution to counter that. We don’t need to settle for reforming the status quo, but create new institutions to counter the old.

Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell: Even though we work in an institution, police need to understand that you don’t have to become institutionalized. What I will continue to do with my last dying breath is create relational equity, nationally and locally.

Sonja Sohn: Honestly, I want folks to see this film and be inspired by this amazing cast. I want them to see this film and see what it takes to make change. Every single one of us has a responsibility to jump in, pick up a hammer, a shovel, a pen, march, use a camera — whatever you do in your life — just follow this example.

Baltimore Rising is available on HBO starting November 20.