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SXSW Review: Dark City Beneath the Beat

Dark City Beneath the Beat is a sensory introduction to a vibrant music and dance subculture beloved by (and native to) Baltimore. The film eschews traditional narrative, instead showcasing the city’s talent, boldly laying bare the city’s dark side, and exposing a collective hope for a brighter future.  ​Over the course of an hour, Dark City introduces us to the Baltimore club music and dance scene through a series of choreographed sequences -- music videos, in a sense -- with purposefully spirited dancing, brightly colored costumes, and innovative beats. Toward the beginning of the film, in a spoken word performance shot in front of a beer and wine store, a female artist wearing a belted blue dress and beautifully woven dreadlocks sets the tone with these words: “These notes are made from our intestines. These colors from our bloodlines. Our dance steps are just our tears in portable form … Woe to those trying to stop these killer African bees from making honey.”  She’s a modern-day Tina in Do the Right Thing, introducing us to a subculture we have yet to experience, preparing us for a glimpse of life in Baltimore. Dark City is at its best when it submerges us in Charm City’s beats and dancing. The sections of the film that center around the King of Baltimore and Queen of Baltimore dance competitions and music production, that elevate and celebrate the unique flavor of Baltimore’s artistry, are the parts of the film that shine the brightest. You can understand why director TT The Artist has endeavored to “offer a window to the outside world, to show you what artists in Baltimore look like, show you what music from Baltimore sounds like, and show you what culture in Baltimore feels like.”  Baltimore is not generally perceived as a city of hopeful aspirations. The city has had a severe heroin problem since the mid 1900’s, a reputation that led some to call it the “heroin capital of the world.”  Along with that crisis came others, too; a lack of livable housing, poverty, an increase in the crime rate, and kids growing up with little hope of changing their circumstances. And as the film points out, the city has had its fair share of problems with over-policing and police violence against members of the Black community (TT The Artist specifically invokes Freddie Gray), a scourge that has contributed to mass incarceration. A powerful scene shows dancers wearing bright orange jumpsuits with nooses around their necks, a metaphor for the rigged system from which Baltimore residents have struggled to escape. The odds are stacked against them -- they have been, for hundreds of years -- and yet they still find the strength to resist. The close-up, straight-on shots of Baltimore residents throughout Dark City show us the faces of people who, though hardened by the circumstances in which they find themselves, have a resilience unmatched by those outside the 410. But Baltimore is also a city chock full of producers, dance teachers, community groups, and neighbors ready and willing to provide the resources and support to those who want to pursue artistic passions as a means of escape, as a way to cope or to rise above the challenging obstacles they face outside the club or dance hall. They recognize the talent flowing through Baltimore’s blood and dancing down its streets. Director of Photography Kirby Griffin captures the power and potential of Dark City’s subjects through low-angle shots that highlight the city’s hidden talents.  The film is ultimately an act of and about hope, and ends on an appropriately hopeful note. There’s hope that the artists featured in Dark City will become more widely recognized, that talent agents will turn to Baltimore to find the next hidden gem, and that Baltimore kids will grow up knowing that when times get tough, club music and dance will always be a homegrown way to escape, to resist, and to rise above it all.


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