We gave it an A
”Came out cryin’ like he know the whole damn story already,” says Fran Boyd, describing her first grandson, who’s just been born during the closing minutes of The Corner.
By this time — the final hour of a six-hour miniseries — you too know a good part of ”the whole damn story”: You’ve seen how Fran, played with fierce humor and fiercer cynicism by Khandi Alexander (NewsRadio and ER), has been both a prosperous middle-class housewife and a viciously desperate crack addict. And you’ve seen how easy it can be for anyone in her neighborhood to slip from one station in life to another.
If I tell you that The Corner is based on a nonfiction work of the same title, cowritten by David Simon (who also wrote the book that inspired NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street) and Edward Burns (a retired Baltimore detective), and that it centers on a family caught up in the early ’90s drug trade in Baltimore, you should not think you’re in for pious, dramatized lectures about the Dangers of Drugs and the Horror of Inner-City Life.
What you’re in for instead is six hours of raucous laughter, bone-rattling suspense, and god-awful tragedy. Each episode plays out with the twisting rhythm of a vintage R&B tune, which is probably one reason why, in adapting the book, writers Simon and David Mills (ER, NYPD Blue) give each section a ”blues” title: The first night is called ”Gary’s Blues,” then ”DeAndre’s Blues,” then ”Fran’s Blues,” and so on.
When Fran — intelligent, mordantly witty, and freshly detoxed from a severe drug habit — says that her newborn grandchild’s bawling sounds like a cry of wise pain, she manages to pack a lifetime’s worth of jaded humor into that line. She has seen her husband, Gary (comedian T.K. Carter, in a breakthrough dramatic role), and her teenage son DeAndre (Sean Nelson, from The Wood) flirt with and succumb to the temptations of drugs and drug dealing.
One nice, typically subtle thing about The Corner is that we get to know these characters before we even realize that Fran, Gary, and DeAndre are related. The director, actor Charles S. Dutton (TV’s Roc), uses a framing device: He’s the off-camera voice of a documentary filmmaker doing interviews on this seedy Baltimore corner. His camera roams the streets, picking up bits of daily life: children going to art classes at a community center run by Ella Thompson (Tyra Ferrell); listening in on the jiving, money-grubbing scams of a couple of older addicts played by Clarke Peters, Reg E. Cathey, and Glenn Plummer; watching as a seasoned white beat cop (a wonderfully restrained Brian O’Neill) sorts out the criminals from the punks and the victims and tries to dispense some semblance of justice in an environment beyond justice’s comprehension. Without a lot of tiresome exposition, we quickly learn the relationships between all these people, and how ”the corner” — the site of so much life that transcends drugs — is the nexus of a community barely able to hold itself together.
A hundred clear, focused stories are seemingly told, but none is more compelling than Gary’s. We see him at 34, begging for cigarettes between hits of heroin, and quickly flash back to a few years earlier, when he was a savvy businessman dispensing wily stock-market tips — a man who’d taken his family away from their impoverished neighborhood. But through a series of quick, ineluctable circumstances that leave Gary with a permanently dazed, befuddled look, he soon abandons Fran and little DeAndre in order to pursue his drug habit. Carter’s performance here — the way he conveys hopelessness, guile, and outrage just by shifting his gaze — is as good as anything you’ll see on the big or small screen, and Alexander and Nelson have moments that are equally good.
The Corner is a marvel of craft. Dutton moves the camera fluidly (there’s none of that Homicide/NYPD Blue herky-jerkyness that’s now become a TV mannerism), swooping in and out of these people’s lives. Music is used naturalistically; people sing a snatch of Funkadelic’s ”(Not Just) Knee Deep” to remember a good party, and a radio plays Curtis Mayfield’s great Impressions hit ”People Get Ready” while Gary shoves a needle into his arm. The sounds deepen, rather than merely comment on, the action.
Says Gary at one point, ”There’s a corner everywhere.” By illuminating this single hangout in Baltimore, The Corner ends up telling a contemporary version of America, if not ”the whole damn story,” then one powerful chapter of it. A