Despair and hopelessness form the intersection at which Charles Dutton studies a drug-addled world that’s painfully real and overwhelming. “The Corner’s” inhabitants, in parts one and two of this six-hour “true story” series, are the ones looking for the big score: Mom and Dad are junkies; 15-year-old son DeAndre is working the corner taking money while others supply the heroin and cocaine. This is a frightful drama, cut from some of the same cloth as the prison series “Oz.” But that series has an insulated quality — those inmates aren’t among us; “The Corner” is a dark, dark place that could be anywhere.
The actual corner is in Baltimore, West Fayette Street in 1993, just like the one Dutton tells us he grew up on. “The corner pulsates with life,” Dutton reminds us, before saying the corner’s chief commodity is death. Dutton starts both segs in documentary fashion, asking his subjects about their past and their relationship to both drugs and the corner, an intersection with a small Korean-run grocery store and little else.
In the direction and the writing, particularly the opening monologues in which the protagonists explain their condition, there’s a strong sense that the playwright August Wilson has influenced the manner in which a character is drawn. Dutton, a veteran of Wilson’s plays and the fine TV show “Roc,” magnifies the precision of the language and ensures that the audience at home feels the pain and inescapability of the streets,
First up is Gary, a 34-year-old who has been shooting up for four years, but in that time has lost his lover, child, finances, employment, self-respect — you name it. He’s reticent to talk at first, and through flashbacks we learn why: Gary (T. K. Carter) is from this very neighborhood and had once worked in the local store, gone to college and even done well enough to afford a nice house. His life now centers on two activities: finding money for dope and shooting up.
Securing financing takes him from basements where he’ll steal copper pipes, to breaking into a home and walking out with the refrigerator on a dolly. We sense that he sees this not as crime, but a necessary evil. He conducts his criminal activities with only marginal concern for who watches, though nothing would embarrass him more than being witnessed by his son, DeAndre (Sean Nelson).
DeAndre is the focus of week two’s hour. The 15-year-old is torn between the corner and an honest living. He attempts to make a go of it in school. He takes a job at a crab restaurant (but an allergy forces him to quit). He positively glows when the local community center director tells him he and his friends can have the basketball team he’s fought so hard to help establish.Father and son have a remarkable relationship. DeAndre is clearly embarrassed by Gary, who makes one vain attempt after another to connect with his son. They converse on strangely uneven planes; there is no authority in this relationship and few signs of unconditional love, yet implications of compassion between the two abound.
It all keeps getting back to the issue at hand: Either cash (for DeAndre) or drugs (for Gary) will win out.Much of this action spins off the ploys and schemes of Fran Boyd (Khandi Alexander), DeAndre’s mother and Gary’s lover turned junkie partner. She is a deceitful scam artist in the shooting gallery and on her front stoop. Once inside, she is a traditional mother concerned about her two sons, worrying about whether they are in school, whether there are presents for a birthday and whether their father has the ability to set a decent example for the boys.
Inside that apartment, she won’t give up, and even entertains thoughts of a detox unit. Reality sets in again when she find out it’s an eight-week waiting period to get a bed in a facility; she won’t do it unless it happens now.
Actors, all of them in roles that can’t be pitied or hated, turn in top-notch perfs. Carter plays Gary as a man in pain who knows he can’t help but make the wrong decision at every turn. Alexander, whose character’s growth from bossy teenage head-turner (in flashback) to her current station in life is chillingly apparent, is a gem of an addict. In an arena where it is so easy to overact, this ensemble keeps the action tight and focused.
DeAndre represents a fascinatingly fleshed out teen character, one who’s trapped by the attraction of easy money and hardened by the reality of junkie parents and the daily presence of police. He wears his emotions and conflicts as battle scars; he has no pride in anything other than the friendship he shares with his gang.
Dutton’s direction and the writing from David Mills and David Simon, whose Baltimore cop book was the basis of NBC’s ace series “Homicide,” perfectly match the subject matter. There is no sugar coating in material or choice of shots, which include more injections into more body parts than anyone would have any desire to see.
Director of photography Ivan Strasburg has effectively given the ravages of heroin and crack dark and depressing colors, making “The Corner” one of the least desirable spots in America. At the same time, its realism should keep audiences returning for more.