Eye of the needle

'The Corner', HBO's astounding and unflinching movie on drugs and despair in Baltimore, will get into your veins like few TV programs ever have.

April 12, 2000|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Last summer a small party was held to welcome the cast and crew arriving in Baltimore for the filming of "The Corner."

As partygoers settled in at the stables of the Evergreen House mansion on North Charles Street, David Simon, the co-writer-and-executive producer of the series, moved outside into the night and sat on steep stone stairs looking down on the scene.

"Goals?" he said in answer to my question. "I can tell you a couple of them: To be subversive in telling more truth about the people on the Corner than television probably wants to know; to humanize instead of demonizing these people. And to do that in a way that HBO can be OK with it."

What Simon, co-writer David Mills and director Charles S. Dutton have delivered to HBO eight months later is far better than OK. They have made landmark television -- a film that people will buzz about in coming days for the powerful stories it tells and for the remarkable sociology that future generations will study.

"The Corner" turns the TV police drama on its head. It shows us the world from the point of view of the people that series like "NYPD Blue" and even "Homicide: Life on the Street" have helped teach us to despise -- drug addicts and drug dealers in cities like Baltimore. And it does so with an eloquence that will make some viewers care about that world in ways they never thought possible.

American television does not get any better than HBO. But you have to reach beyond even such HBO triumphs as the 1997 film, "The Tuskeegee Airmen," to find an apt comparison to "The Corner." It is made of the same rare stuff as such watershed works of social conscience as "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," the Depression-era study of Appalachian poor by James Agee and Walker Evans, and Edward R. Murrow's 1960 CBS documentary on migrant workers, "Harvest of Shame."

The beginning

"The Corner," which is based on the nonfiction book of the same title by Simon and former police detective Edward Burns, opens like a Murrow documentary: Dutton standing on a bombed-out Baltimore street corner speaking directly to the camera.

"I'm Charles S. Dutton. Last summer, I came back here to Baltimore, Maryland, to film a story about life on the Corner," he begins.

"I grew up and hung out on a corner just like this one, not too far from here, a corner like thousands of others across the country," continues Dutton, whose personal journey from jail (the Maryland State Penitentiary for killing a man in a fight) to Yale (graduate study at the Yale School of Drama) to Broadway and Hollywood has been chronicled many times in these pages.

"The contradiction of it is this," he says. "On the one hand, the Corner pulsates with life -- the energy of human beings trying to make it to the next day. But also it's a place of death, be it the slow death of addiction or the suddenness of gunshots. This film is the true story of men, women and children living in the midst of the drug trade. Their voices are too rarely heard."

The opening credits take us from documentary to docudrama as we meet Gary McCullough, played with an exquisite vulnerability by T. K. Carter ("A Rage in Harlem"). The choice of opening on McCullough, one of the three people at the film's center, is one of many wise decisions made by Simon and his colleagues.

At the intersection of North Monroe and West Fayette streets, dealers shout out, like carnival barkers, the brand name of the heroin or cocaine they're pushing to an endless parade of walk-up and drive-through buyers. In this hellish cauldron of death and drugs, 34-year-old McCullough is the character most like us, the mainly middle-class audience that subscribes to HBO. He is the most sympathetic and, in many ways, the one who cuts hardest against the TV stereotypes of drug fiends. Simon calls him "the soul of the series."

Before his addiction to heroin, which started four years earlier, McCullough was a promising young entrepreneur holding down a day job as a supervisor at Bethlehem Steel and a night job as a security guard. He also had his own small company that rehabbed rowhouses, and a stock portfolio that he had managed to run up to $150,000.

McCullough is an intelligent, decent and sensitive man who you could easily imagine running a government agency or a business. Instead, he is chasing an increasingly elusive heroin high seven days a week. As we meet him, he's going down, down, down, and his lingering sense of decency only makes him less likely to survive the Corner.

The other two major stories in the series belong to Fran Boyd, McCullough's estranged wife, and DeAndre McCullough, their 15-year-old son. Boyd, played by Khandi Alexander ("ER"), is also a junkie. DeAndre, played by Sean Nelson ("The Wood"), is an up-and-coming "corner boy," out on the street selling vials of cocaine, learning the game from a supplier named Bugsy. He's also acquiring a taste for what he sells.

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