We spoke to Angel Manuel Soto, the director of HBO Max’s grizzly new movie Charm City Kings, about toxic masculinity in films and portraying the city of Baltimore in a realistic light.
Charm City Kings is a grizzly, coming of age drama about a 14-year-old Black teenager coming to grips with his identity. Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) badly wants to join The Midnight Clique, a collection of Baltimore dirt bike riders who run the streets during the summertime. When Midnight’s leader, Blax (played by legendary rapper Meek Mill) takes Mouse under his wing, the 14-year-old soon finds himself at a crossroads between choosing the right path or falling into the trap of chasing fast money and violence.
Charm City Kings was released on HBO Max last week after making its premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Adapted from the brilliant 2013 documentary 12 O’ Clock Boys by Lofty Nathan, and written by Sherman Payne — from a story from Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins, Kirk Sullivan, and Chris Boyd — Charm City Kings explores the interaction of race, class, and gender through the lens of dirt bike riding culture. The movie was directed by Puerto Rican director Angel Manuel Soto, who isn’t from Baltimore, but was able to portray “Charm City” — the nickname for Baltimore — in an emphatic, realistic mannor.
We recently sat down with Soto and chatted about toxic masculinity in films, connecting the Latino American experience with the African American experience, premiering the film during a pandemic, and why he had to get a Bad Bunny song in the movie.
The original screenplay to Charm City Kings was written by Barry Jenkins. How did you come to be involved in the project?
Sometime after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, I remember telling my team that I needed to do something to get my mind off of things. Among the scripts that came was Barry Jenkins’ 12 O’Clock Boys. So the first thing that caught my attention was the title because I loved the documentary. What drew me to the story was everything that Mouse experienced was extremely similar to my growing up on the streets of Puerto Rico and all the colonized youth who live in the middle of the ocean. Being a part of a marginalized community and being able to tell stories that resonate with our struggles are usually not seen or shown. They’re often shown through a criminalized mindset or lens. I really want to tell stories about our hopes and dreams. Yes, we have those obstacles but we have so much more. The more I read and researched, I discovered the difference between, you know, the Caribbean and African Americans is just a boat stop away.
How important was it for you to shoot the film in the “Charm City?”
We wanted it to be as authentic as possible. One hundred percent of the film was shot in Baltimore. We didn’t want to fake it. We couldn’t shoot a film about Baltimore in Atlanta. Most of the supporting roles were residents of Baltimore. Like Chino [Braxton], [Lakeyria “Queen” Doughty], and Marvin Raheem. [William] Catlett is from the DMV area as well. Also, most of the crew behind the camera are from Baltimore so we were intentional not only about shooting on location in Baltimore but to have people from Baltimore be a part of the project as well.
Who did the bike stunts?
The bike stunts were done by real bike riders from Baltimore. For the sake of time, we had a double for Meek [Mill.] I would say that 98% of them were from Baltimore. We only had two that came with the stone coordinator from New York and they were there to help with timing and keeping up the pace for all the more complicated shots. We wouldn’t be able to pull out this film if it wasn’t for Wheelie Wayne’s blessing. He’s one of the OGs of the Baltimore bike scene. He was on set all the time and brought everybody he knew with him. To get his blessing, the bike gang’s blessing, and the community’s blessing, and to have them participate in the film was something else. Without Wheelie Wayne, none of that would have happened.
Jahi Winston does a remarkable job portraying Mouse. At such a young age, he brings such raw energy and emotion to the role. How was it to work with him?
He is a star. He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. Not just as an artist and actor, but his professionalism and, and devotion to the craft is one of the most impressive things I have experienced. What really attracted me to hire him for the role was as a person, he’s very much an empath. He’s a kid who was very active in the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice issues. He may have not gone through all the experiences, but he’s able to put himself in other’s shoes and really embody the emotions of people that have gone through similar circumstances to a point that you can see it revealed in his acting. I feel like he’s the next star and I’ve witnessed him grow up close. It was a dream to work with someone like him.
Speaking of standout performances, Meek Mill has been in other films but this is his breakout role. He really brings life to the character of Blax How did Meek become a part of the film?
I knew Meek through his music and his presence in the media. Before I came into the project, he was already approached by the producers, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Caleeb Pinkett, to play the role of Blax. Meek loves the bike life too. When I came aboard the project, he was in prison. So we’re looking for other actors that could embody the character of Blax and before we got too far on choosing a different actor, Meek was released. So when the producers went back to him and asked him if he wanted to do it and he said, “Of course.” Everything about the role was so Meek except for the mechanic part. Meek really conveyed the emotions of Blax who wanted to make amends for his wrongs. He wanted to do something good for somebody else, to make things right. But within the simplicity of the action of trying to do right by the kid, he eventually ends up making the ultimate sacrifice for Mouse.
Some of the themes in the film are loyalty, trust, and the complexities of Black masculinity. Can you speak to why those themes were important to display in the film?
The film is about loyalty and integrity. Whether it’s something that you learn along the way, or are you born with it, it is an important element. Blax’s loyalty to Mouse’s brother made him also be Mouse’s savior. Mouse is loyal to his friends. The fact is that these elements of manhood are rarely explored in films, or rarely explored in films, where people of color are in front of and behind the camera. One thing that Sherman Payne did that was amazing was that he was able to keep the humanity and innocence of the kids even in their darkest moments.
Mouse’s idea of manhood drove him into a bad space. Most of what we have been taught about manhood is, more times than not, toxic. You realize that the lack of mentorship is something that we deal with. The lack of fathers present — because of work or abandonment — is something that we deal with. Having somebody who’s going to cheer for you, who wants to see you succeed is something that we deal with. I want to break those stereotypes of Black and brown kids for people across America, not by beating you over the head with it, but literally by showing you the effects of toxic masculinity. Like when Mouse reached out for a kiss real fast — because they tell us to go for it — he felt the rejection. That doesn’t mean that she didn’t like him but she wanted to be respected.
How challenging was it to go from having the film be highly regarded at the Sundance Film Festival, to planning to have a wide, theatrical release, to having everything come to a screeching halt because of COVID-19?
It was like going through the five stages of grief in eight months. Prior to the pandemic, we were planning to open in over 1,500 theatres nationwide. As a kid from Puerto Rico, who dreamed of making films, I never thought this kind of opportunity would ever happen. It was going to be a big moment for people in Puerto Rico who don’t always get to see examples of these kinds of opportunities. All of those elements and more were working in my head prior to the premiere. When the pandemic hit, and it got pushed back to August, then it kept getting pushed back, I had to accept the fact that life would never be the same. I sacrificed so much by leaving my homeland, to come to a foreign land that does not want me or my country. I was risking everything to plant my flag in the belly of the beast and I felt like I had to start all over again with another project. But then, HBO Max saw the film and loved it, and came up with an amazing strategy to release it not just to 1500 theaters but to over 50 million viewers.
The film features some notable hip-hop artists, along with some Latino artists and music from local Baltimore artists. But I did notice a Bad Bunny track as well. Did you make that executive call to get some Latino flavor in the film?
When we were editing, that song “Chambea” —the punch that it has — felt so right for that moment. The track really felt right for it and I pushed for that to happen. The music supervisor and everybody else in between were able to get other stuff that I wanted or similar stuff that I thought would fit and he really responded and delivered by including other Puerto Rican artists as well. But also, it was a way to get the Puerto Rican flag in film. Because everybody knows Bad Bunny and he’s always on the radio, I thought, “Why not have Bad Bunny playing on the radio in Baltimore?” I was glad that it all came together.
Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.