SALON TALKS

HBO's "The Slow Hustle" director: "We're all carrying some level of mass grief as Black people"

Sonja Sohn ("The Wire") appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss a heinous chapter in Baltimore's dirty cop history

By D. Watkins

Published December 14, 2021 7:19PM (EST)

Director Sonja Sohn (left) interviewing Salon's D. Watkins (right) in "The Slow Hustle" (HBO)
Director Sonja Sohn (left) interviewing Salon's D. Watkins (right) in "The Slow Hustle" (HBO)

Most cops are good, we just have "a few bad apples." Too often, I hear potential mayors or governors or congressmen or presidents answer the big question about the problems with policing, with this same untrue, uncreative, underwhelming response.

It's almost like they are paid to make that statement or are just insensitive –– so insensitive that they ignore the hundreds of people killed by police officers every year, the thousands of people who protest against law enforcement ever year, the countless amounts of brutality cases on the books, on top of the thousands of exonerations because of DNA, or just plain old crooked policing mixed with prosecutorial misconduct. Mounds of evidence that could be used to reflect how broken our system of law enforcement actually is patiently waits at the other end of a simple Google search. So why is it the country and many of its leaders can't escape this "bad apple," narrative?

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In Baltimore city, the bad apple narrative has been taken to another level with the downfall of The Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) –– eight elite officers who were granted special privileges to remove guns off of the streets. Led by celebrated wonder cop, officer Wayne Jenkins ––  the GTTF did get guns off of the streets; however, they also planted guns on the streets, robbed and extorted citizens, committed overtime fraud, sold hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of illegal narcotics, all while costing the city taxpayers millions of dollars in misconduct settlements. Many officers knew of the GTTF's actions, yet chose to remain silent, which cancels the ever so popular "bad apple narrative." Detective Sean Suiter was one of the few officers willing to testify against some of these so called "bad apples," but ended up dying the day before he was supposed to take the stand. Some say it was a homicide and others are calling it a suicide. Director Sonja Sohn spoke to me recently on "Salon Talks" about her attempts to get to the bottom of what happened to Suiter in her new HBO documentary, "The Slow Hustle."

Many know Sohn from her days as detective Kima Greggs on "The Wire." She's since moved her skills to the other side of camera directing the acclaimed documentary "Baltimore Rising" and now "The Slow Hustle," which takes a deep dive into the mystery of Suiter's case. In the film, Sohn releases footage from the crime scene, along with a collection of interviews with Suiter's family, close friends, reporters, experts, residents in the neighborhood where Suiter died. And, in the documentary, Sohn talks to me about my reporting on GTTF with Salon and my firsthand experiences with police growing up in Baltimore. All of us offer our own unique takes on the case and what we think happened. 

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Sonja Sohn here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

One question that I'm sure a lot of people want to know is how you pick projects. People may be familiar with your first documentary "Baltimore Rising," which was about the unrest in Baltimore, the movement and everything that happened after the death of Freddie Gray. This time with "The Slow Hustle" you chose to focus in on a personal story. Did it feel different this time as a documentarian?

Yeah, it did feel different, but I don't think I could have moved forward if it didn't feel authentic, like it was coming from an authentic place within me. The story was brought to me by an executive at HBO who had been following the GTTF corruption case and thought that this mystery here was very unusual and wanted to know if there was something I could bring to it or maybe be able to help unlock what was going on. It was six months beyond detective Suiter's passing. The rumblings of the theories was starting to evolve already. Sean Suiter passed away the night before the "Baltimore Rising" premiere, if you recall.

Yes. Before we get too deep, can you just talk about GTTF? Because a lot of people aren't really familiar with the story and I just want to put everything in context for them.

The general gist of it is, these detectives, seven, eight detectives were basically violating the civil rights of folks that they "suspected" of having guns on them, but basically were profiling egregiously. You can break it down more than I can, and we can let people watch the film, but within that, the Sean Suiter case arises because he knew and worked with one of the cops, one of those detectives back in the day. And that's where we sort of take off.

I'll give everybody the really quick overview. Baltimore has had a serious problem with gun violence and murders. And it's been going on for a long time, before I was even born. And to fight that, every once in a while, the police department creates these flex squads, these units of plain-clothed police officers that have the luxury of policing however they want to police, which means a lot of civil rights of citizens go flying out the window. But these guys have the luxury of just running up on people and doing whatever they have to do to find guns.

This particular squad that Sonja referenced, the Gun Trace Task Force led by Wayne Jenkins took it to a whole different level. They robbed citizens, they sold drugs, they robbed pharmacies. They did any and everything, but they hid behind the idea of them being a perfect unit. They got a lot of guns off the street. And their bosses were really happy with that, but what the bosses allegedly didn't know is that these guys were stealing money, stealing overtime, stealing from citizens, stealing from residents and selling more drugs than some of the city's biggest drug dealers. And one thing about this time, and this is why I think your film is so important, this is why your film is not just a piece of art, but it's an important film because all of these crazy cases were going on. Allegedly these Gun Trace Task Force cops robbed a stripper who was actually a little person. These guys dressed up like mailmen and robbed citizens. They did all of these wild, crazy stories, but it didn't get reported. People all over the world, when I went to different places to talk about this story, they didn't know what I was talking about. I would like you to speak on that.

Well, yeah. What was interesting was it was a huge story for about a week. We do have footage from NBC and other major national networks, but this also came up in November the year after Trump was elected, right, and so there was a lot of other news eclipsing this corruption scandal. And then I believe there were things going, popping off all over the place. I just remember it was so huge and I thought that folks were going to latch onto it and we were going to get to the bottom of this because it just seemed like surely we were going to get to the bottom of a cop being killed on duty. We might not be able to solve these other 300 homicides, but we going to solve this one, right?

That's one of the main issues that I have with that particular time period. Everyone was so addicted to following Trump that you have a case as wild and as big as this and it doesn't receive a fraction of the attention that it deserves. Can you try to transport us into the world of Sean Suiter at that particular time? He was a homicide detective, right? And he was also set to testify against one of the members of GTTF.

Right. He was. And the day that he went out, which you'll see in the film, into that neighborhood, he was supposedly in search of a witness.

What do you think was his mindset that day?

That's really hard to say, but hanging out in the homicide department, throughout the shooting of "Baltimore Rising," they do their job, but there's one aspect of this is "going to work," you know what I mean? Some people might think some of the work that you do is glamorous or what I do is glamorous, but I'm just going to work, and it's just a regular sort of thing. I certainly don't believe he thought he was going to roll up and be killed that day. But I think also there's some things that are out . . . His state of mind's outlined a little bit or at least there's some alluded to because of the fact that he was set to go and speak to his lawyer later that day. I don't know how that plays into it, but I wouldn't want to speak to that too much.

One thing that you did that was really good and I think that people who want to learn more about this case is going to appreciate is you included his family in the film. How important was that to you?

I don't think the film could have been executed without the family. Yeah, as a director, there's always ways where you find ways to give every aspect of a story the weight that you feel like it deserves and it's a challenge. It became that way with Nicole and the family, because I thought that they really went on quite a journey. Without them allowing us into their lives and their experience, the heart of the soul of the film would just not be there.

It's the impact of when an institution fails the people and the people who actually serve it. It was important to show the fallout. The fallout basically landed in the laps of the family. They were the fallout. And it seemed as though, for me, I was hoping that the long game was not a hustle of the family by the department. That's one of the reasons why I'm so attracted to the title because it played in a couple of ways. In the end, at least they were able to, it appears they're able to get the compensation that they deserve, though no one is joyous about getting a compensation for the death of a loved one.

I wonder how difficult was it for you to just be close to them and as they dealt with that kind of trauma.

It was a little difficult. They taught me a lot just by being around them because I think part of being a director is really connecting to people, and I love people as you know. I love connecting to folks, but I had to be mindful of how to connect with these folks. The whole thing about being a director is you let them direct you on how to connect. My first layer of that was with "Baltimore Rising," but with this film, I hadn't been dealing with anyone who was in such direct, immediate grief.

I think we're all carrying some level of just mass grief as Black people. And in Baltimore, we're all survivors of homicide on some level, you know what I mean? And that's a whole another conversation, but this family they were right in it, and they were also a police family and they were Black. That's a lot, you know what I mean? I don't know how they're going to take me. So them allowing me into their space, I felt very honored and I was just trying to be respectful. And we found a way to communicate and get there.


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I remember me and you, we've had so many conversations about corruption, about policing and what it looks like. And I want to know has making "Baltimore Rising" and making "The Slow Hustle" changed your stance on a current state of corruption? Are you hopeful for the department?

It's not about being hopeful for the department so much as of having to take a broader view of life and how it works in general. I think I got very closed and tight after "Baltimore Rising." The making of the film impacted me very deeply and really opened up within me a whole another journey of just how deeply impacted I have been by structural racism and white supremacy and oppression. And so I feel like I'm coming out of a very bitter period.

Being someone who really just in my DNA and my bones just feel like the structures, just the whole makeup in which we live in is an illusion. I have felt that way prior to the Black Lives Movement. When I was little I just looked and all I could see is the multiple ways where there are protocols and ways of operating that just are built on lies. And we're expected to play the lie and act like nothing's happening.

I realized that there's a rage within me that had welled up and through "Baltimore Rising," it touched upon that. And so now, having had to process that, that's why I didn't . . . It was really challenging to first go into this film, going, "Oh gosh, the law enforcement energy again." And that's a very specific kind of energy. And when you touch it and it touches you, you're doing a dance with it and all of this. But having gone into that tight space with it, and then having this process, all of that energy and alchemize the traumatic pieces that were there, I am coming into a place where there is a real, I think, a deep understanding for me and a real soul need to not embrace hope because the reality is the reality, but to be expansive and say, "Hey, can I embrace a softer narrative around change?" Hope is in the fertilizer, but there needs to be much more than that for things to be different.

If I look over the span of my lifetime, there are periods where things are hard and then they're better. They're hard and then they're better. That is a cycle. And that follows the seasons and the winter and the spring and the summer, you know what I mean? And so if I can just ground down in that and just say, "We're going to be in this cycle, but I think that out of the toughness that we've gone through, I think we may be," especially Baltimore, "may be giving birth to some new leadership that's younger, that's more true to their authenticity."

I hope so.

I'm hoping. Listen, I'm in this lane, I'm playing this lane as true as I can play it. And so that's where, I know it's a long answer, but it's deep. Listen, maybe I should ask you a question or two.

Okay.

When you think about the film and your experience in the film, going into the film and coming out of the film, what did you think when I came to you and asked you to be in involved? Why did you decide to be involved and did any of your perspectives shift throughout and in the end?

The biggest shift for me was the humanity piece in watching the family from a distance. I don't have a relationship with Sean Suiter's family. I've met some of his family members through you. As difficult as my history with police has been, I will say that this is the first time I felt a pain that was very, very familiar to me. I connected in that way. Even after meeting them, my language and how I talked about what happened changed because I'm not talking about a news story, I'm talking about a person who has a family that looks just like my family.

The other thing is for you allowing me to participate, I was happy because as far as your body of work, one of the reasons why I'll always look up to you, why I always look up to Michael K. Williams, rest in peace, is that some of the documentaries in the work and the language that you guys just have is just full of empathy for people who got to go through the system, full of empathy for people who are in this system. He had a documentary about some young people in prison and just having that language for us, it means everything. And I don't think it gets highlighted enough. It's one thing to work in television and to be able to tell these stories on the screen. It's another thing when you take your personal time and your passion projects and what you believe in and you create pieces of art that I can use in a classroom, that I can say, "Oh no, well, you need to check out 'The Slow Hustle' to see how the real Baltimore city police officers are."

After watching the film yourself, what would you like folks to be walking away discussing and why do you think they should watch the film?

I think people should watch the film to truly understand the other side of policing. I think we have this general idea and I'm not speaking from people that solely represent my perspective. I'm talking about people from the other side who can't tap into the stories that I can tap into. I think it gives them an opportunity to tap into a side of policing that they're never going to get in the media.

If we weren't addicted to covering Trump, there would've been another reason to bury this story or push it. There have been great books written on the topic of this film. There have been great articles written on the topic of this film. You made a great film, all of these amazing pieces of art exist. However, it's very, very easy for people, producers, as a lot of these networks to shuffle this to the back of their desk because that's not their experience. "Let's talk about this Trump rally in Dayton, Ohio." It's easier the stomach because you can't see the reality of what people are going through.

So, the whole world wants "The Wire" back, but we know we won't get it, but what we do want to know is what can we expect next from you, are you going to be directing projects, are you going to be doing more documentaries, what's next for you?

I really love documentary. It's like I just discovered it's my sweet spot. I've wished I discovered it 10 years ago. So yeah, I got my hands in a couple of pies on that side, nothing that I feel comfortable talking about right now. And then acting-wise, I am going to be in the George Foreman biopic "Heart of a Lion." I got cast as George Foreman's mother. It's a period piece. That's going to be exciting.

"The Slow Hustle" is available on HBO Max. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress," is out now.

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