There is a beautiful, graceful moment within the final hour of The Corner, the six-part miniseries produced by HBO that examines the overwhelming specter of drug addiction as found in inner city Baltimore. While a character we have come to know – if not necessarily like – again falls prey to drug addiction, director Charles S. Dutton places his camera on the street, peering upward at a building. As a pipe is being used inside a darkened home, the intermittent light emanating from the room is captured as it plays upon the window. The visualization is poetic and powerful: the glow seems to indicate the warmth of the holiday season and the escape delivered by the drugs. Most poignantly, the flickering also represents nothing less than the gasping for air and last vestiges of a struggling, desperate soul.
Based upon the book The Corner: a Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood by David Simon (Homicide: a Year on the Killing Streets) and Edward Burns (a former Baltimore police officer and writer for the Wire) and adapted by Simon and David Mills (Homicide: Life on the Street, ER), The Corner is as brutally effective and honest a piece of social realism as I have ever seen. Winner of the prestigious Peabody Award and three Emmy awards (for Outstanding miniseries, Outstanding Writing, and Outstanding Direction), it is wise, clear-eyed, and unapologetic. The filmmakers are shrewd: to ask the viewer to sympathize with the plight of these people is not necessarily the main concern here; to impart a degree of understanding, and perhaps even empathy, is. It is no small compliment to The Corner's considerable ambitions that it largely succeeds on all three fronts.
The Corner's harrowing tales (based on real events and people) are told largely through a quartet of characters. Gary McCullough (T.K. Carter), a 34-year-old man whose conscience has not entirely left him, is introduced already in the throes of addiction. He lives at his childhood home and nervously negotiates the streets looking for a fix. Flashbacks (used sparingly, but effectively) inform us that he has always been an industrious and clever sort, which took him to college and his own successful business. (His current situation shows him utilizing these traits to pilfer copper from plumbing systems, disappear old cars no longer wanted for insurance monies, and occasionally sell bogus smack to quell his jones.) Gary is fully aware of his plight and his abilities while sober – his shame is so deeply rooted that he must turn away from others while shooting up.
His wife Fran (Khandi Alexander), although an addict herself, is in many ways the polar opposite. Whereas Gary knows the crushing power of shame and doubt all too well, Fran is defiant and resigned, unwilling to make excuses or apologies for her drug usage. She too makes no attempt to hide her addiction, even when chastising her children for behaviors they may very well have learned from her. Living in a modest home with the help of relatives and governmental assistance, Fran stays put on her doorstep and reacts sardonically – and at times belligerently, but always with a sneer – to any intrusion. A woman seemingly prematurely hardened by life, the flashbacks also demonstrate that she and Gary never seemed to share the same dreams, though she enjoyed the benefits of their hard work (a pleasant home, employment with the telephone company, and the money that made it too easy to purchase drugs casually).
DeAndre (Sean Nelson), Gary and Fran's fifteen-year-old son, lives with Fran and has been selling drugs for a few years. His dilemma is crucial, as he still possesses youth and therefore the opportunity not to place himself in the same situation as his parents. However, DeAndre also possesses that vexing brand of arrogance and insouciance that young men with inexperience and extroverted personalities tend to exhibit. Though he makes half-hearted attempts to enter the legitimate work force, his lack of discipline keeps him away from school and on the corner with his friends, the ersatz "Crenshaw Mafia Brothers" gang. His kindness is also jeopardized by his conflicting desire for street cred, which keeps him aloof from – and outwardly disrespectful to – his girlfriend Tyreeka (Toy Connor) and virtually all adult authority figures.
The final character in the quartet is the corner itself, which is shown as part of a once proud and vibrant community, now squandered and lethal – as Dutton notes in the introduction, it "pulsates with life" but is also a "place of death." Walking its streets are the old timers who have never left and are now past hoping for a better day, the new gangs that constantly threaten to invade, and the ever-present and jaded Baltimore police. Throughout, Dutton employs a knowing, detailed eye: the shooting galleries are shown in unsparing detail, as are the health consequences of the shooters' lifestyle; the blind eye turned by police as men tow stolen refrigerators and the like down the street; cigarettes being sold as single units since full packs are often too expensive for the junkies; bottles being hurled with abandon against the local buildings, only to break and further litter the already disregarded environment.
The human dimension – and its often less flattering aspects – is also given a frank and thorough treatment. These characters are not presented as mindless zombies oblivious to their own behaviors; they have, however, been reduced by their addictions, and their myopia and double dealings are staggering. Family members steal from each other, neighbors hustle neighbors, and even the most unfortunate of circumstances (such as the "need" for money for an abortion) appear as nothing more than a brazen opportunity for a quick fix. The filmmakers also note the optimism and spirit amidst the chaos, acknowledging that all hope is not lost: the community recreation center continues along by the tireless efforts of the inexhaustible Miss Ella (Tyra Ferrell); assistance programs are available (though far from perfect); the structure of family is available to some, and religion to all; and the promise of sobriety and those who will support it (realized by some, but only tenuously grasped by others).
In the midst of these individual dramas, Dutton and the writers infuse the series with peripheral characters to varying degrees of prominence that fully flesh out the greater themes being explored. Admirably, virtually no didactic moments are to be found. These characters are not ciphers, but fully (and heartbreakingly) realized reflections of their real-life counterparts. Moreover, they possess personalities that can be found anywhere. The direction and writing are more than matched by the excellence of the vivid characterizations, and the cumulative power of The Corner is extraordinary. Dutton has proven that he is as formidable a force behind the camera as he is before it.
• Gary's Blues
Each episode is approximately sixty minutes long and is bookended by interview footage shot in a documentary style with the characters directly addressing Dutton's (offscreen) inquiries. Also included with each episode is a summary, scene selection, and "next on" and "previously on" features. The coda adds further context to the already dense narrative and brings the stories full circle, again admirably free of pat answers – it is as uncertain and tentative as life itself.
The six episodes are included on two discs in a cardboard case.
Video: The Corner is presented in full-frame (as it was shot) and the transfer is suitable if not spectacular. Filmed in a straightforward manner (and at times as a faux documentary), The Corner often employs hand-held cameras and consciously artless composition (the entire series is comprised mostly of medium shots and close-ups, although it does employ the occasional fadeout). Accordingly, the color palette is as drab as the surroundings, and the only instances in which Dutton allows vibrancy to seep in is during the flashbacks. Evidence of grain shows up periodically and detail is often slightly washed out, but since the aesthetic decision was for gritty authenticity, I did not find it problematic. Decent to good.
Audio: The Corner's audio is presented in English and Spanish DD 2.0 mixes, which are both serviceable. Since Dutton chose to film The Corner in a straightforward, almost faux-documentary manner, the audio is also free of intrusive touches. There is virtually no soundtrack (with the exception of background radio), and dialogue is easy to hear throughout the center channel. The background chatter and ambience of the corner itself are well rendered through the front surrounds (though not flashy by any stretch), and overall the presentation is fine.
English, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
Extras: No supplemental materials are included in this release.
Final Thoughts: Unsparing, courageous, and wise, The Corner is an expertly rendered distress call that is remarkably free of sermonizing and easy pandering. This is not to suggest that the Corner is not a moral work – its outrage is teeming just below the surface – or an exercise in gratuitous depravity. Rather, it is a rueful and utterly sober examination of a universal series of human dynamics, filtered through an urban setting that most would not want to venture into. The filmmakers are also keenly aware of the irony that even if its addicted denizens can achieve sobriety, another set of hellish obstacles awaits.
Highly recommended - it should be seen, even if rented - though it may take quite a while before one would want to venture to The Corner again.