May 2022

Noted

‘We Own This City’

By Craig Mathieson
Still from ‘We Own This City’
David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’, returns to Baltimore for a present-day examination of rapacious police corruption

It would be simple to position this six-part HBO drama as an act of nostalgia. Creator David Simon, once more in league with crime novelist George Pelecanos, is returning to the row houses and urban factions of Baltimore, the setting of his revered crime compendium The Wire. But that show, a masterful dissection of a city’s institutionalised flaws, concluded in 2008, and this spiritual sequel depicts a downward but cruelly logical spiral in the years since. While The Wire examined drug trafficking as a natural reflection of supply and demand, We Own This City (streaming locally on Binge) moves the focus to policing as unfettered capitalism.

Based on the 2021 nonfiction book of the same name by Justin Fenton (who, like Simon before him, is a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun), We Own This City follows the investigation and 2017 arrest of police officers who formed the city’s Gun Trace Task Force, a plain-clothes unit tasked with getting firearms off the streets but which brazenly stole cash and drugs from their targets. The hectic time line cuts between the covert surveillance of the unit, the subsequent plea-bargain interviews with crooked cops, and illuminating flashbacks. There is no mystery in this procedural; instead it lays out, with reportorial detail, the circumstances that allowed this corrupt unit to flourish.

In The Wire, the Baltimore Police Department was a tribe defined by traditions and hamstrung by systemic issues, whereas here policing is purely “a numbers game”. Arrest rates and crime statistics – such as guns recovered – are paramount, even if cases are dismissed en masse before they reach a courtroom. The narrative detail is a taxonomy of policing grifts, starting with overtime rorting and escalating to armed robbery. Whether Black or white, the Gun Trace officers led by Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) blithely boast of their earning potential; no one wants to work homicide because there are no graft angles.

The aesthetic is familiar: handheld cameras, grim interview rooms, lived-in authenticity. A Department of Justice lawyer, Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku), serves as an audience proxy, interviewing locals as part of a federal inquiry into the racial bias that motivates the shocking arrest rate of the city’s Black population. Some of her encounters veer towards exposition, but eventually the sheer scale of the police department’s defects are withering, with judges unable to find 12 jurors who will believe the testimony of any officer. Simon’s idea of black humour is the bewilderment of experienced outsiders at what they discover. It’s effective.

With the war on drugs as an illogical, crushing motivation, policing has become a form of rent-seeking, replete with corporate jargon – “you’re an earner and you work your ass off, of course we’re going to protect you,” a senior officer assures Jenkins after another public complaint is lodged. Everyone gets chewed up, whether it’s detective Shaun Suiter (Jamie Hector), who tried to steer clear of Jenkins, or citizens pulled over without probable cause to have their just-cashed pay cheques stolen. Simon’s shows since The Wire, such as Treme and The Deuce, have embraced a bittersweet artistry, but We Own This City is brutal, unadorned docudrama, clear-eyed and compelling. His dedication to chronicling Baltimore’s realities isn’t nostalgic, it’s a warning.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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