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'Charm City Kings' Is An Exhilarating Tale Of Bikes, Boyhood And Baltimore

<em>Charm City Kings </em>is a coming-of-age story set in Baltimore's dirt bike culture. It's based on the 2013 documentary, <em>12 O'Clock Boys</em>.
William Gray
Charm City Kings is a coming-of-age story set in Baltimore's dirt bike culture. It's based on the 2013 documentary, 12 O'Clock Boys.

In Baltimore, summer Sundays are the time to ride — on warm evenings, dirt bikes and four wheelers roar through the city's streets with young riders popping wheelies and pulling gravity defying tricks.

Filmmaker Angel Manuel Soto says Baltimore's bike culture is unlike any other: "It's one of the most exhilarating and emotional spectacles of talent that I have ever seen, streetwise ..." he says. "They were literally like dancing on top of their bikes while popping a wheelie. I've never seen anything like that."

Soto is the director of Charm City Kings, a new coming-of-age film based on a 2013 documentary called 12 O'Clock Boys.It stars Jahi Di'Allo Winston as Mouse, a 14-year-old kid trying to figure out who he wants to be; he loves animals, he loves bikes, and he's grieving the loss of his late older brother.

Interview Highlights

On Baltimore bike culture

Angel Manuel Soto: I felt like one of the coolest things was how passionate they were about it and how united they were enjoying doing their tricks. ... Being able to see them having fun and being able to see them express their freedom was something that ... moved me. ... When people come together to do the things that make them free, that gives them passion, it's a beautiful thing.

On getting into the character of Mouse

Jahi Di'Allo Winston: I think we've all kind of been at that stage of adolescence where you want validation from the girl we like, or the boy we like — and wanting to get validation from yourself. And I think that's really Mouse's thing.

He's trying to, for lack of a better word, avenge the death of his brother. And he's still grieving. So he's a very layered individual. And so getting the ... very rare opportunity to play a character such as this was really, really very attractive to me. And I would say at the core ... Mouse is sort of all of us: He's strong-willed, and he's vehemently passionate, and just immensely focused and driven.

On working alongside real-life dirt bike riders from Baltimore

Winston: It was great. We helped each other. ... I think the sense of authenticity that the film has is on their shoulders. ... The whole movie was shot in West Baltimore. So there were some times when we were shooting big scenes and it was hard to tell which riders were from our set or which riders were just, like, there, because this is Baltimore and they are just dirt bike riders everywhere. So that was a cool thing. ... I feel like I stepped into the world of 12 O'clock Boys. It was awesome.

Soto: One of the things that I like to pursue while creating a film is immersion and authenticity. ... The actors that are not from Baltimore, they went through dialect coaching to get the accent as close as possible. And while we were on-set, it was a complete Baltimore crew. ... They were able also to help us keep in check the dialogue. ... They'd intervene whenever they felt like they had to. And that was very powerful.

<em>Charm City Kings </em>was filmed in West Baltimore.
William Gray / HBO Max
Charm City Kings was filmed in West Baltimore.

On the tenderness of the film

Soto:One of the things that really resonated with me was the memory of those [coming-of-age] films, the nostalgia of that time in my life when life was simpler. Even though things were harsh around you as a kid, you just focused on having fun and, you know, being the kings of the world. And that type of innocence and energy more times than not really hits a wall earlier than expected in marginalized communities.

And it is that humanity that I went back to: Growing up and the stuff that I have been taught — the machismo and the overly religious upbringing — and how that really informs kids growing up and really caused them to do the damage or really detour without a proper mentorship.

Winston: Toxic masculinity is something that I've always talked about amongst my own circle of friends and just trying to deconstruct those really archaic, patriarchal mindsets of what it is to be a man. Toxic masculinity is really everywhere, and specifically with young men of color. We haven't had the tools and really the resources to really deconstruct those mindsets. And in a way, we feel like we need them to survive.

So I think just deconstructing that and trying to get to a place where we can meditate on the what-ifs: What if it didn't have to be like that? And what if it can be like this? That's really powerful.

Christina Cala and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.