From a Baltimorean’s Perspective, Rat Film was Disappointing

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to watch the positively acclaimed movie Rat Film by local director Theo Anthony.  Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, the film explored the intersectionality between Baltimore City’s rat problem and its history of discriminatory housing policies. While visually creative, Rat Film presented a weak argument between rats and housing and lacked urgency for viewers to do anything about the problem.

The history of discrimination in housing in Baltimore is grim, and the film is very matter-of-fact about this, stating ordinances and private agreements to exclude “colored persons” from not only improving their current homes, but moving elsewhere into better neighborhoods. What the film very obviously misses, though, is that Baltimore City was the city that pioneered these policies and is the reason that other cities enacted similar practices. This film also missed the opportunity to share Baltimore’s unique history of having three classes instead of two: whites, Jews, and colored.

The film interweaves the history it does provide on housing covenants and redlining with the history of rats in Baltimore and the methods used to study and kill them. While fascinating, this history should and could have been linked better with the housing history to conceive a coherent argument.

Baltimore Backyards before Sewerage. Source: pinned by rayleone on Pinterest

New rat poison was created by Johns Hopkins scientist Dr. C.P. Richter during World War II and used in working class black neighborhoods without being thoroughly tested. Were there any public health implications of this beyond killing the rats? Did the residents experience any residual effects from the chemicals? These ideas are not explored.

The film does provide the argument proposed by scientist Dr. David E. Davis that no amount of rat poison would fully exterminate the rats, but improving socioeconomic conditions could reduce the rat population. However, the only evidence provided was the disputed National Institute of Mental Health series of experiments conducted by John Calhoun during the 1960s that simulated a rat “society” in a cage. Today these experiments are seen by medical historian Edmund Ramsden as “not only questionable, but dangerous” because of the severe lack of space the rats were given. The breakdown of “society” was “not from density, but from excessive social interaction.”

A view of mouse universe 33, showing four cells of group 01 during week 162 of an experiment, possibly study 133. C.1975. Source: US National Library of Medicine

Narrative anecdotal evidence barely supports Dr. Davis (and the film’s) theory and also provides missed discussion opportunities. A day in the life of Ed the rat exterminator in black neighborhoods juxtaposed against white rat owners cannot be the only proof that more rats exist on the streets in economically deficient neighborhoods. It is especially not convincing to me because I am a rowhome-converted-to-apartments dweller who sees at least two rats daily on a block that has intact, single family rowhomes appraised over $300,000. Ed and his interactions with residents were endearing, but the areas he visited had no geographical context and looked fairly well-kept compared to the neighborhoods visited in the “video game simulation” (which, disappointingly, I found out from Anthony was just a glitchy version of Google Maps.)

There were rabbit trails in the film that were stimulating but completely off-topic, such as the crime scene dioramas and simulations. That time would have been better explored looking deeper into some of the ideas that Anthony attempted to lace together, such as the dreams of newborn rats and Baltimore’s poorest residents. Another idea that could have been covered further is why working class black men have to lure rats with a fishing pole and kill them with a baseball bat but the “Rat Czar”, who is a white middle class man, can openly show off a series of modified rifles and blowguns without consequence.

1937 Baltimore Residential Security map sm 2000 px on a side
Baltimore Homeowners Loan Corporation Residential Security Map, 1937. Source: Cham Green via Antero Pietila

A series of maps provided at the end of the film showed the overlaps between the majority of redlined districts with unemployment, income, and crime, which on the surface is important, but literally covers what could be the answers to helping these communities recover. How did Downtown, Canton, and Federal Hill go from being redlined to being some of the most desirable neighborhoods in Baltimore City? What happened with the Jewish areas that were yellow or redlined? How did Jewish inclusion into mainstream white society affect housing? Investigating what changed in the redlined neighborhoods that are more successful now could be the first step to figuring out a way to help the ones that are struggling. Instead, we are left with maps which make a point but no call to action for what to do about it.

If your personal experience with Baltimore is primarily from CNN coverage of buildings burning during the 2015 Uprising, then this film does provide a preliminary connection and loose summary of how rats and poor neighborhoods are linked. As a native Baltimorean, I found the film lacking in depth. That said, it is worth supporting a local director and taking the time in the next week to see the film at the SNF Parkway at 5 W. North Ave…just expect more storytelling than facts.

“Wild Rat” title photo source: Reg McKenna – licensed as CCBY 2.0

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