LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Summer Sundays in Baltimore means it's time to ride. Everyone comes out on dirt bikes and four wheelers ready to pop wheelies and show off their tricks. The goal - hit 12 o'clock.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHARM CITY KINGS")
JAHI DI'ALLO WINSTON: (As Mouse) Pull the bike back, a wheelie. Straight up, so it's like the hands of a clock when it hit midnight, 12 o'clock.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's actor Jahi Di'Allo Winston explaining Baltimore's bike culture in the feature film "Charm City Kings." And he's here, along with director Angel Manuel Soto, to talk to us about the film. Welcome to you both.
ANGEL MANUEL SOTO: Hello. Hello. Thank you for having us.
WINSTON: Thank you for having us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Great to have you both. Angel, I'm going to start with you. "Charm City Kings" is a coming-of-age film about bike culture in Baltimore. It's based on a documentary called "The 12 O'Clock Boys." You know, people who don't live in big cities may not know about the phenomenon of dirt bikers tearing through neighborhoods every now and then, doing tricks, blowing red lights. How familiar were you with the culture around dirt bikers?
SOTO: In Puerto Rico, there is a big bike culture, especially in the inner city but nothing like what I experienced in Baltimore. It's one of the most exhilarating and emotional spectacles of talent that I have ever seen street-wise. I felt like one of the coolest things was how passionate they were about it and how united they were enjoying doing their tricks. And, you know, they were literally, like, dancing on top of their bikes while popping a wheelie. I've never seen anything like that. And I'm being able to see them having fun and being able to see them express their freedom - was something that was very (non-English language spoken). See that and...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It moved you.
SOTO: Yeah, I moved me in a way that resonated because if people come together to do the things that makes them free, that gives them passion, it's a beautiful thing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jahi, the film centers around your character, Mouse. He's a young kid trying to figure out who he wants to be. He loves animals. He works at a veterinary hospital, and he also loves bike culture. And the film actually opens up with him watching videos of his older brother, who has died, riding his dirt bike, popping wheelies. How did you get into the character for this role? Did you draw from your own experience?
WINSTON: Sort of. I think (laughter). I think we've all kind of been in that stage of adolescence where we want validation from the girl we like or the boy we like and wanting to sort of get validation from yourself. And I think that's really Mouse's thing. You know, he's trying to, for lack of a better word, avenge the death of his brother. And he's still grieving. So he's a very layered individual. And so getting the opportunity, very rare, unfortunately - very rare opportunity to play a character such as this - was really, really very attractive to me. And I would say at the core, he's - Mouse is sort of all of us. Like, he's strong willed, and he's vehemently passionate and just immensely focused and driven. So it wasn't that hard.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a question to you both. A few of the characters in the film, like Queen and Jamal, are from Baltimore, actually, and ride there. They were in the documentary "12 O'Clock Boys." Did they check you both on anything? I mean, what was it like working with them?
SOTO: Go first, Mouse.
WINSTON: OK, I'll go first.
WINSTON: It was great. We helped each other, and that was the great thing. And I think the sense of authenticity that the film has is on their shoulders. So it was awesome. And there was sometimes - because the whole movie was shot in West Baltimore. So there were some times when we were shooting big scenes and it was hard to tell which riders were from our set or which riders were just, like, there, because this is Baltimore, and they're just - there are bike riders everywhere. So that was a cool thing. And it was like, wow, like, we're really, here. Like, I feel like I stepped into the world of "12 O'Clock Boys." It was awesome.
SOTO: Yeah, definitely. One of the things that I like to pursue while creating a film is immersion and authenticity. So with that, we definitely have, you know, the actors that are not from Baltimore - they went through dialect coaching to get the accent as close as possible. And while we were on set, it was a complete Baltimore crew that worked on the set. With that, they were able also to help us keep in check the dialogues. We will have discussions. It's like, well, this is what they want to say. Yeah, but we don't say it that way. So how is it that you say it? So they intervene whenever they felt like they had to. And that was very powerful because we don't want to mimic life. We want to represent a snippet of life that still represents a worthy appreciation to the legacy that I feel they left in us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, it's a very tender film. It reminds me of "Stand By Me," you know?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you both go about achieving that very interesting time between boyhood and adulthood when you're trying to become a man but also, you know, being someone who's vulnerable and open to emotion?
SOTO: Yeah, well, for me, one of the things that really resonated with me was the memory of those films, the nostalgia of that time in my life when life was simpler. Even though things were harsh around you as a kid, you just focused on having fun and, you know, being the kings of the world, you know? And that type of innocence and energy more times than not really hits a wall earlier than expected in marginalized communities. And it is that humanity that I went back to as growing up and the stuff that I have been taught, the machismo and the overly religious upbringing and how that really informs kids growing up and really caused them to do the damage or really detour without a proper mentorship.
WINSTON: Yeah, I think one of the selling points for me was that thing in particular because I think toxic masculinity is something that I've always talked about amongst my own circle of friends and just trying to deconstruct those really archaic, patriarchal mindsets of what it is to be a man. Toxic masculinity is really everywhere and specifically with young men of color. We haven't had the tools and really the resources to really deconstruct those mindsets in a way we feel like we need them to survive. So I think just deconstructing that and trying to get to a place where we can meditate on the what ifs. What if it, you know, didn't have to be like that? And what if it could be like this? That's really powerful. And it's - again, it's really attractive and engaging as an artist to do something, to be a part of something such as that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's actor Jahi Di'Allo Winston and director Angel Manuel Soto from the new film "Charm City Kings." It will be released on HBO Max October 8. Thank you both so very much.
WINSTON: Thank you.
SOTO: Oh, thank you for having us. It was great.
WINSTON: Thank you. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.