Taking a stand on 'The Corner'

At first reluctant, Baltimore-born Charles Dutton decided that only he could tell its story properly.

Cover Story

April 16, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

Charles S. Dutton lives on a 30-acre "farmette" in Howard County, about 20 miles and who-knows-how-many worlds away from the streets of East Baltimore where he spent the first 20 years of his life.

But those streets and those years will always be with Dutton. Especially now.

Tonight, his latest project, a six-part miniseries titled "The Corner," makes its debut on HBO. Although reluctant at first, Dutton eventually signed on to direct the entire six-hour series. Part of the reason was the opportunity it gave him to work in his hometown. "The Corner," based on a nonfiction book by former Sun writer David Simon and former city police detective Edward Burns, was shot here in Baltimore over three months last year. Another was the chance to work with a group of young African-American actors who could benefit from Dutton's experience and training.

But mostly, Dutton agreed to take it on because he was convinced only he could do it right. The story of a drug- infested West Baltimore neighborhood and the people who eke out their lives there, "The Corner" is unlike anything television has seen before. The drug pushers, the cops, the high-profile characters who have become staples of TV drama, are only peripheral to the story.

The key figures here are the users -- the men and women hooked on drugs so completely that their lives are little more than the struggle to get from one fix to the next.

Dutton knows these people, grew up with these people, could have become one of these people himself. At 49, he's not that far removed from the young man of the late '60s who tried every drug there was, who spent nights on streets just like this in East Baltimore, who spent seven years of his life in jail on charges of weapons possession and manslaughter.

"The Corner," he became convinced after reading some early scripts, was a story he had to ensure was told right.

Last week, Dutton sat down in his recently renovated house to discuss "The Corner." Dressed casually in a black pullover shirt and pants, surrounded by an extensive African art collection, he talked about filming the life of a West Baltimore neighborhood, about the social conditions that make this sort of hell on Earth, and about finding dignity in every human being and every human situation. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

On why he signed on: "I saw a pattern in the writing that excited me somewhat. In all four episodes I'd read, none of the stories were from the dealer. It was all about the addicts and their struggle, their perspective. I found that extremely refreshing. ... I said, 'OK, they've never done this before.' "

On why "The Corner" required special handling: "I had an idea in my head, how to make this series work. And I wouldn't want another director to come on in the middle of it and screw it up. I knew that, for this piece to be accessible to an audience, you had to discover the humanity of the thing. It couldn't look like 'Homicide' and 'NYPD Blue.' The style of it couldn't be that. It couldn't be that slick ... and particularly with the young black actors, you couldn't just let them do their hip-hop thing. What I thought it needed was an actor-director -- an actor-director who knew something about acting."

On overcoming the limits of TV: "I can't even watch television. 'NYPD Blue,' even 'Homicide' -- I thought that was the most generic cop show in the history of cop shows. And it probably had to do with the fact I'm from Baltimore. I know how real murders happen, all that stuff. The book was wonderful; the television series became just that, a TV series.

"But there was something about this piece. ... This could have been the most ugly, derogatory, racist, stereotypical, horrible-image six hours in television history. And interestingly enough, all of those [possibilities] are actually in the writing. Not intentionally, of course, because it's a true story. But written, shot and put out to the public, it could have been interpreted all kinds of ways."

On ensuring his vision prevailed: "What initially bothered me, and it bothered HBO, was the promo reel that the producers had put together. I said, 'We're not showing that anywhere.' In all fairness to them, maybe they didn't have enough time to think about it.

"The problem with it was, first thing, it had blues music in it. That was not my choice, to have blues music even at the beginning, or at the [end of each episode]. For one thing, blues is not urban music. And No. 2, [the performer] ain't John Lee Hooker.

"But the collage that was put together, with blues music throughout it, made it feel like, 'Oh, they're just having a happy-go-lucky time getting high and stealing refrigerators, being black, being poor, being ignorant. They're just having a good old time of it.' And all the scenes were negative; everything was stealing, stealing, stealing, dope, dope, dope, dope. There's much more diversity in the series than that.

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