[Additional reporting by Geoff Streat]
Outside of Chicago and New York, Baltimore is probably one of the most authentically Black Club music capitals of the world. A place where the spirit of each party embodies House music, Hip-Hop, Classics, and yes a whole lot of The Paradox’ legendary legacy — and the new documentary Dark City Beneath the Beat has marvelously captured all of that for the outside world to see.
Artist driving, the 65-minute film, that is borderline a music video is a snapshot of how brilliant Black culture is created. It is just as much a celebration of the Charm City, as it is a condemnation of years of municipal neglect. The story could easily mirror that of how Hip-Hop gained its origin story in the South Bronx — but this is not New York. And this movie is thoroughly about the unique culture of that city on the Patapsco River.
Dark City is generational. It shows how Club music has its own community that teaches the next wave of dancers and musicians the gems of each breakbeat or lyric of the song. The director, TT the Artist, brings you into her world with the affection that only an insider can provide and just as much care as any famed performance crew such as the Rock Steady Crew or even Alvin Ailey. For her, these cultural stake-holders ranging from teeny tykes to grandmothers are just as valuable as the aforementioned performance companies. In fact, she lets you know, frame by frame, that the work that they do in the community is just as important as those national treasures and you should never forget that.
Evidence of this is captured when one grammar-school aged girl communicates that she loves dancing because it makes her feel “special” and people affirm her. There is a twinkle in the young child’s eyes as she loses herself in her own rhythm. The new filmmaker zooms in on her face— fresh from maybe sipping on a Capri Sun or whatever little kids do before they get busy— and documents her physical and figurative escape from the sure oppression of her world.
The girl, while dancing, probably has no idea that she lives in the shadow of Freddy Gray and that in her city already this year there have been almost 250 reported murders. TT masterfully communicates this Black Girl Magic. And while the community is tight-knit, she also digs deep to show that their fellowship is not without challenges. One dancer shares while embracing his own Black Boy Joy, “We dance in the streets because we don’t have anywhere to go now.”
The filmmaker does not stir away from the Black Lives Matter movement, using beautifully show but incredibly brash imagery to address police-involved violence. One segment features a police officer dancing around a lyricist, demonstrating the up-rocking battle that Black men and law enforcement encounter every day. Brilliant.
TT the Artist taps into her bag of creativity to offer to the viewers a cornucopia of Baltimore’s most iconic landmarks and the colorful people that add texture to their existence. Places like the historic Lexington Market are incorporated as a character in the film. It is just as important as the Club performers. Hundreds of years old, if you come through the city, you know the seafood is to die for, and if you are there… you have to try the Lake Trout on a slice of bread.
Now, why is that important in a film about Club music and dancing? Because culture is defined by the spirit of the people. It is the circumstances that arise as a result of those people who make those locations come alive.
Dark City hits the hard realities of life in Baltimore. But it is more about how folks are able, through a shared love for Club music, to focus their energy on leveraging their talents in efforts to tap into their sense of purpose, generate opportunities and find fulfillment during their life’s journey — regardless of the obstacles.