As a young reporter working for Baltimore City Paper, Stephen Janis ’86 was increasingly drawn to stories about policing. “It defines the agenda in so many different issues because it has this incredible amount of money and power,” he said.
His interest held over the course of his investigative journalism career, which has included publishing three books about the philosophy of policing and reporting for the Baltimore Examiner. Janis has transitioned from the written word to video journalism, hosting and producing at The Real News Network, a nonprofit digital news outlet. Fully vested in video, Janis spent five years making his first documentary film, The Friendliest Town, which was released on Jan. 19.
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He directed the film and co-produced it with journalist Taya Graham, also an investigative reporter, host, and producer at Real News. They tell a complicated story that springs from the firing of the first Black police chief of the town of Pocomoke City, on Maryland’s eastern shore.
Former Chief Kelvin Sewell attempted to improve police-community relations by introducing community policing, and he ended up fired. When his supporters in the community got wind of the effort to oust him, they came to his defense.
Sewell was a retired Baltimore homicide detective years with whom Janis had written a book years earlier: Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore, published in 2011. When Janis heard about what was happening in Pocomoke, he went after the story.
In the Baltimore Sun, David Zurawik wrote that the filmmakers examined the story in the context of Pocomoke’s racial history “and a rising consciousness among some of the Black residents there who organized and fought to be heard at City Council meetings about the chief’s ouster.” The movie is a must-see for anyone interested in an exploration of racism “once you get past the pretty, chamber-of-commerce veneer in some small towns…,” he wrote.
The film took five years to make, Janis explained, because he was working a full-time job and because the story kept evolving. He’s satisfied with the final product, which is available on numerous streaming platforms.
“I feel pretty good about it, I think, given the feedback I've gotten from people, and the fact that it allowed me to take a story and tell it in so many different ways, with so many different characters,” he said. “You know, film is very powerful. Film can take a simple narrative and make it complex in ways it's more difficult to do with text. And I think this documentary, hopefully, in my opinion, achieved that, and also was able to truly highlight the spirit of the community as they fought to get their chief back.”