OCFF 2021 – The Friendliest Town
Stephen Janis is former newspaper reporter from Baltimore who now works for The Real News Network, a nonprofit organization that does internet and TV broadcasting. Through his work in that area, Janis came to know former Baltimore City homicide detective Kelvin Sewell. In 2011, Sewell became the police chief of Pocomoke City, Maryland. During Sewell’s tenure in that position, crime went down and Pocomoke City did not have a single homicide. This documentary by Janis doesn’t put that statistic in context. Pocomoke City isn’t exactly Baltimore. It’s not clear what the homicide rate had been for this small town on the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland prior to Sewell. However, it is clear that Pocomoke’s Black community embraced Sewell, who is himself an African-American man.
Unfortunately, in July 2015, Sewell was fired without explanation. Because Sewell was a source for Janis and even co-wrote a book with him, Janis went from Baltimore to Pocomoke City to do this documentary in the hope of getting an explanation. Janis’ film here tells the story of the people in the town, particularly the Black residents, and how they fought back against Sewell’s firing. Sewell, along with many residents, were completely confused as to why he was fired. He appeared to be doing very well at his job. Again, crime went down, so the people didn’t understand and wanted answers. This film documents the search for those answers.
We never see him or meet him, but what’s revealed is that Sewell’s firing might be connected to the firing of an African-American police detective in Worcester County before him. That man was Detective Franklin Savage. Savage filed complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging racial abuse. The inference is that instead of getting rid of or disciplining the people perpetrating racial abuse, the person who was the victim of said abuse was himself gotten rid. Sewell being kicked out was allegedly tantamount to Savage being kicked out.
Throughout the film, we come to see the history of racism in this area and in this town specifically. Sewell’s firing becomes a flashpoint that uncovers the underlying issues and tensions between Black and White people in Pocomoke. At the same time, there are some great relationships between Black and White people. Citizens for a Better Pocomoke is an organization that was created in the wake of Sewell’s firing. The people who are members of that group represent some of the people interviewed for Janis’ documentary. Those people are both Black and White and both band together to get justice for Sewell.
For those who have heard of this story in passing and wanted a deeper look at the case, this documentary is that deeper look. Janis here is aspiring to be in the same league as someone like David Simon who created HBO’s The Wire (2002). This film might not be on that level, but it’s a good first step.
The Friendliest Town.
Running Time: 77 minutes.
Saturday, March 6 at 9 PM, followed by Q &A.
Access the film and Q&A for Saturday, March 6 here.
Access the film only here.