We Own This City isn’t a sequel to The Wire. And while both shows share a few familiar faces on camera (Jamie Hector, Domenick Lombardozzi, Delaney Williams) and familiar names behind the scenes (creators David Simon and George Pelecanos), the most unifying trait might be how depressing it is that Baltimore is still a ripe setting for tales fictional and not about drug pushers, cops, shitty politicians, and everyone stuck in the middle.
Here, in a six-episode limited series (which premieres Monday at 9pm EST) that follows the tracks of journalist Justin Fenton’s book We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption, seeming helpers get crushed under the weight of bureaucracy and seeming villains lack the self-awareness to understand or care about the toll of their misdeeds on the whole of a society that grows in its distrust of the police. Again, this is not a sequel to The Wire.
Starring Jon Bernthal as the ring leader of the band of crooked and often racist and bullying cops that Fenton detailed in his book, We Own This City works overtime to tell its true story in the most authentic way, shooting on location and occasionally employing community members who lived through some of the events being recreated. This includes the Freddie Gray protests that made headlines the world over while these cops were using crime scenes and traffic stops as their personal piggy bank.
Recently, we spoke with Bernthal and series director Reinaldo Marcus Green (who previously worked together on King Richard) about that effort toward authenticity, the impact of making a project like this, first-hand experiences (both positive and negative) with the police, corruption’s ability to spring roots and spark denial, and the moment things got so heated that Bernthal had a punch thrown at him by a passerby who thought he was really trying to break up a protest.
You said you have some personal experience with the issues covered here, can you break that down a little?
Jon Bernthal: Sure. Both fortunately and unfortunately, growing up in DC, I have firsthand experience with the police. I have experience with friends with the police. I’ve been incarcerated before. I’ve been roughed up by police before. I have unbelievably dear friends who are career police officers. It’s always been an issue that has been unbelievably frustrating for me that the discourse around this issue is either one way or the other — it’s either black or white. And I feel like so much of the discourse around this, it’s been people shouting from the polls, waving their flags. And oftentimes I think the folks that are leading these discussions have no experience actually within the sort of reality of the situation. They’re people that are kind of spewing rhetoric from the sidelines. I often find that people who actually have real experience in the actual issue, they can approach it with real empathy, because they have real experience with the quote-unquote other side. And these things are complicated and there are no easy answers and I’ve been so frustrated with how polarizing this issue has been. And again, with this team [Simon, Pelecanos, writer D. Watkins, Green, etc], you get to dive into the complication and the nuance and it’s the only way you can tell the story.
The show does a tremendous job of showing the kind of impotent political posturing that happens. Question for both of you: what’s the weight of taking on something like this for you? Just when you leave set, are you able to hang it on a hook or does it come with you when you go home?
Reinaldo Marcus Green: Anytime you work on something that you pour your heart into, it’s like having a child, they’re with you forever. These things follow you forever. You live with them forever, which is why you have to choose wisely and for better or for worse in anything that’s worked or not worked in my life, at least I can hang my hat on the subject matters that I’ve been a part of. I made a movie in 2018, Monsters And Men, really dealing with similar subject matter, but that was sort of just scratching the surface. I only had 90 minutes to talk about some of the issues that were facing me in my community in Staten Island. I also grew up around a lot of police officers who were my friends, who I played high school baseball and football with. I wanted to talk about the gray area. And I think here we had six episodes to dive into that conversation. And it was a way for me to engage with the subject matter in a way that I felt was going to try to not just point the finger, but certainly try to uncover some of the truths that were happening in areas like Baltimore and other areas in this country. So yeah, there’s a lot of weight when you’re taking on real-life people’s stories.
Jon, it feels to me like this guy believes that he’s righteous, that he’s not a full-on dirty cop. Do you have to have some buy-in to be able to play that so convincingly?
Bernthal: I think it’s essential you don’t judge a character. I think you’ve got to find empathy. You’ve got to find the character’s heart. You know, the first time I talked to Wayne [Wayne Jenkins, the ex-cop Bernthal plays] from prison, the first thing he said is, “man, you must think I’m the most evil guy on Earth,” and he was trying to kind of talk me out of that. And I said, kind of plainly to him,”look, man, I’ve gotten to know so many of your friends.” I’ve gotten to know so many guys that served on the Gun Trace Task Force with him. I’ve gotten to know folks that he coached youth football with. I’ve got to know Donny Step, the guy that he was selling drugs with and robbing drug dealers with outside of work. And pretty much to a person, what everybody said was that he was the most committed father that they ever knew.
There’s a real, real sort of disconnect there for me. Beyond anything else, I’m a father and I’m a husband. I know the same is true with Ray. It’s what we first really connected on. We’re family men and Wayne really was too. He loved his boys. And so for me to try to understand how somebody who loved his family so much would commit these kinds of acts that would ultimately keep him from his family was just a real sort of confusing disconnect for me. And I often find that when you can sort of locate the crux, the ultimate question, the ultimate inconsistency of a character, that’s where you really find the character. That’s where you find his conflict and his struggle. And so that’s really where it kind of all played.
Within a week of Wayne accepting culpability and crying publicly saying he was guilty, he also absolutely maintained his innocence. There would be phone calls where I would be on the phone with him, and he would both admit his guilt and absolutely demand that he was innocent in the same 15-minute phone call. So I think, again, that adds to just the complexity of these issues in general and how much of this is sort of perpetrated and created by the systems in place. How much of it is human greed and human decisions, and there’s always someone to blame. And I think when you talk about culpability with corruption and policing, the great men and women in the Baltimore Police Department that police with integrity and ethos, the folks that I really connected with, what they all talked about is, “we’ve just got a problem of admitting it when we’re wrong. We’re so trained to never admit it when we’re wrong.” And that’s a big problem. And I think in that, again, lies the crux of a lot of these issues.
The Freddie Gray protests, that whole sequence was amazing. How did you pull that off in such an authentic way?
Green: Well, we had real footage of Wayne actually taking that van, commandeering the van and coming in. We had to structure it in a way where we only had a finite amount of extras and a finite amount of police officers. So we went to the actual place where it happened, Mondawmin Mall. And then we went up the street where the protest had started earlier. So it wasn’t as widespread as we could have made it, but we definitely tried to create that feeling.
Jon was actually swung at on that day. Some random person came off the street and actually thought a real protest was happening and just joined the uprising. And it was scary, it was also a moment where it was like, we’re making something that feels so real that someone on the street wanted to be a part of it. And as scary as it was to have your actor in the line of fire, it was also like, “man, we did pretty good, Jon, are you okay?” It was a fully charged day where you could feel crew members and you could feel people, community members, it was ominous, it was gray. You can’t make that. That was just one of those days where we were happy to get through it and it was painful, but it was beautiful. And there was so much to be proud of about that day and the construction of it.
‘We Own This City’ airs Mondays at 9pm EST on HBO