“When we were shooting The Corner, the saddest part was watching the little kids come around, excited about the movie, and you could see them accepting their lot in life. That this was their world, this is what they were born into, this is all that they had, this is all that they could achieve, all that they could aspire to. And that's it. The ceiling is set over their heads.”
Director Charles S. Dutton, The Johns Hopkins Newsletter 21/09/00.
This is the TV equivalent of Last Exit To Brooklyn or Requiem For A Dream, with elements in common with both La Haine and Cieudad de Deus: raw, gritty, uncompromising, realistic, smartly directed, supremely well-acted, compulsively watchable, but harrowing and with little light at the end of the tunnel. The original non-fiction book from former Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon and ex-cop Edward Burns was an amazingly detailed, wholly absorbing work of Dickensian proportions; after spending a year with the BCPD’s Homicide Unit, Simons and ex-narc Burns spent a year in West Baltimore in one of the open-air drug markets, taking in all aspects of the lifestyles associated with “The Corner”. Structured in a similar manner to his previous book (from where the ground-breaking TV show Homicide: Life On The Street was drawn, a show Simon would eventually work on), the chapters focus ostensibly on one individual living or working on The Corner, but with the main narrative threads moving forwards; each chapter ends with an “opinion” piece from the authors, and the whole book ends with an epilogue that fills in the stories of the individuals beyond that year.
The authors, together with Producers Robert F. Colesberry (K-PAX, The Wire), writer/producer David Mills (NYPD Blue, E.R.) and actor/director Charles S. Dutton (Alien 3, Menace II Society, Mimic; Against The Ropes) adapted the work into a six-part mini-series for HBO, and produced something so raw by US standards it’s amazing it got made, let alone screened and nominated for awards. For a start, it follows on in the Homicide style, and that show was cancelled pretty much every year it was on NBC. The hand-held 16mm camera work, natural lighting, semi-improvised scenes and uncensored dialogue delivered by an almost all-black lead cast would never have found a home on a major network – but even HBO might have balked at the numerous scenes of drug-taking in close-up, random violence, property damage, theft and petty larceny. That they did not is testament to their well-demonstrated commitment to hourlong dramas of genuine quality and innovation. The success of Traffic at the box-office won’t have hurt either….
Dutton bookends the series with a personal appearance, speaking to camera about the neighbourhood he knows from personal experience and the basic subject matter of the series. Each episode then starts and ends the same way, with a direct-to-camera piece by a lead character, answering questions from Dutton behind the camera, as if the piece is a documentary interview. Of course the episodes are carefully dramatised, but so much of the reality recorded in the book is woven into the plots and dialogue, it is difficult to remember that this isn’t actually a documentary. Dutton here heightens things through roving handheld camerawork, ambient sounds and authentic locations, but really proves his skill as a director when he leaves artifice behind to shoot more conventionally, staying focused on particular moments, allowing the actors to be their characters as the camera simply sits there, watching them, their emotions flitting across their faces.
As such, while we see a number of the people recorded in the book, we don’t always get as much backstory or detail on them, and this brings the lead characters into sharper focus: Gary, DeAndre, Fran, Tyreeka, Ronnie, Fat Curt, Blue and Miss Ella specifically. Names familiar to readers of the book, the cast are uniformly excellent in their portrayals, but their names may not be as familiar except to viewers of urban dramas like Boyz In The Hood and Menace II Society: T.K.Carter (Southern Comfort, The Thing, Runaway Train, A Rage In Harlem), Sean Nelson (Fresh, Homicide, American Buffalo), Khandi Alexander (E.R, Menace II Society, C.S.I. Miami), Clarke Peters (Outland, Mona Lisa, The Wire), Tyra Ferrell (Boyz In The Hood, White Men Can’t Jump, E.R.), Glenn Plummer (Speed & Speed 2, Menace II Society, E.R.) – actually, given the number of faces who’ve appeared in E.R., that probably says a lot about the calibre of performers here. The ensemble is fantastic, but there isn’t a single role that isn’t well drawn, well-defined by the chosen performer, e.g. the little kid who threatens the Korean shop-owner over his sandwich is only in the show for that moment, but makes an indelible impression. This all adds to the sense of realism, of place and time, of what is happening. It says a great deal that when Dutton chooses to end the show with a group interview with the real Fran, DeAndre, Tyreeka and Blue, you get the impression that you have looked at the worst these people have suffered, the actors portraying them well, but you have only scratched the surface of their realities – they carry the emotional scars clearly in their eyes of the events you have witnessed. It puts the whole series in an interesting perspective, less of a gesture than the end of Schindler’s List was, more providing a ray of hope amidst the poverty, hardship and nihilism of The Corner.
This shows what A&E could have done with the Homicide box sets – the 4:3 image is smooth and clear, colours steady and solid, absent any grain other than that intended; this is the picture quality at its best given the 16mm handheld work and natural lighting.
As above, an object lesson to A&E – sturdy 2.0 conveys atmosphere and background detail while keeping the dialogue upfront and clear. The amount of ambient detail is well used: in the quieter moments you can almost feel you are in the room with the character on-screen, something quite unpleasant to contemplate given some of the shooting galleries and alleyways shown.
Packaging & Extras
A 2-disc digipack glued into a hard card cover so it opens out book-style allows for the discs to be well protected, while dispensing with the need for an insert or booklet, episode summaries being printed on the inside front cover. The front cover art is effectively done, very much in the style of a movie one-sheet (the current paperback edition of the book carries the same art, but drops the dramatic Traffic-style tag line). The rear cover has a blurb that generally avoids hyperbole, screenshots that highlight DeAndre, Fran and Gary, movie-style credits and a list of the three Emmys deservedly won by the show – Outstanding Miniseries, Direction and Writing.
Unfortunately, as is HBO’s wont for anything that isn’t The Sopranos, the extras are noticeable by their complete absence other than cast & crew bios, “Previously On” and “Next Week On” segments, with the latter two annoyingly playing in a small viewer within the episode menus rather than full screen. While the show is pretty much upfront, a featurette or commentary allowing Dutton, Simons and Mills to talk about adapting reality would not have gone amiss. Nor would a look at the research the actors must have done to portray people still living, perhaps with the actual person and the actor playing them together commenting on events – but no, nothing at all.
Not for everyone, this is worth viewing by people who have found something to appreciate in the various film and TV titles mentioned throughout this review. As the other side of the coin from Homicide, it’s worth seeing by people who got a yen for Baltimore and the unconventional filming and acting of that fine series (while we often saw crabs being eaten in restaurants in that show, this show shows you those working in the kitchens). Fans of Simon, Burns & the late Colesberry’s current HBO production The Wire will also find much to appreciate, considering how many names, places and situations from The Corner can be found in season 1 of that show. Quality TV from HBO once more, which means it’s worth your time – right now, there are few other brands as trustworthy in the US TV industry as this one.