The Slow Hustle exists at the intersection of true crime and social justice documentaries, concerned as it is with a fatal mystery wrapped up in an epidemic of police corruption. Debuting on Dec. 7 on HBO, The Wire actress Sonja Sohn’s sophomore directorial effort is, like 2017’s Baltimore Rising, a story about racial unrest and institutional misconduct in Baltimore, all of it once again revolving around dirty cops and a dead Black man. However, in this particular instance, the dynamics at play aren’t quite as clear-cut as that description makes them sound.
At the center of The Slow Hustle is Baltimore Police Department detective Sean Suiter. On Nov. 15, 2017, Suiter was accompanying his rookie partner David Bomenka on an assignment when he allegedly spotted a suspicious figure in an alleyway in the city’s Harlem Park neighborhood. With Bomenka around the corner, Suiter approached this figure, shots rang out, and Bomenka raced to the scene, where—as frantic bodycam footage illustrates—he found Suiter lying dead from a gunshot wound to the head. With no reliable eyewitnesses to the crime, a harried if largely clueless search ensued, most of it predicated on a generic description of a Black man in a dark jacket with a white stripe. The results of this quest were predictably meager, and it wasn’t long before pressure began to mount on Commissioner Kevin Davis—from both the public and the mayor—to find the assailant who killed this heroic cop in the line of duty.
Except, as The Slow Hustle soon reveals, things weren’t as cut and dried as they initially appeared. Suiter, it turned out, wasn’t just some nondescript detective; he was scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury about his fellow officers’ corruption the following day. Eight members of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) were being investigated for a wide range of offenses, including shaking down citizens, filing false paperwork, committing civil rights violations, and making fraudulent overtime claims—as well as rolling around town in unmarked cars while wearing black hockey masks, robbing drug dealers of their narcotics and cash, and then planting evidence on them to send them up the river. They were veritable gangsters, and the fact that Suiter died in this puzzling manner a mere day before he was speaking to the feds about his shady colleagues raised immediate suspicions that he was actually the victim of an orchestrated hit.
That twist alone makes The Slow Hustle a fascinating whodunit, and complicating matters further, it eventually came out that Suiter may not have been as clean as people thought. Reports showed that Suiter had been present—and involved in some way—with a 2010 incident in which GTTF members, using unmarked cars, attempted to rob two Black men who subsequently fled the scene, resulting in a car chase and auto accident that killed an innocent motorist. Was Suiter an unwitting participant in a scheme carried out by rogue cops? Or was he an accomplice, on the take just like his boys-in-blue brethren? Obvious answers weren’t forthcoming, but many came to think that if the latter were true, Suiter might not have been murdered at all; rather, he could have committed suicide, and staged it to look like a homicide so that his family would receive his full post-mortem benefits.
Naturally, Suiter’s wife Nicole didn’t take kindly to the notion that her husband had offed himself in a supposed plan to avoid testifying, and the medical examiner failed to shed conclusive light on the situation. He noted that the location of the lethal gunshot indicated that it could have been a self-inflicted wound, but later remarked that if Suiter was trying to cover up a suicide, he wouldn’t have shot himself in the head; instead, he would have fired at his chest, which would have made it resemble a murder. While an Independent Review Board was ultimately created to get to the bottom of this, its conclusion—that Suiter had taken his own life—didn’t convince skeptics, especially considering that its final report featured at least one glaring factual error that undercut its reliability.
Led by interviews with Salon’s D. Watkins (a Baltimore native), The Baltimore Sun’s Justin Fenton and WMAR-TV’s Brian Kuebler, Sohn’s film immerses itself in a city plagued by pervasive distrust of the police, thanks to a long history of corruption, harassment and murder—the most recent and notorious example of which was the 2015 killing of Freddie Gray. Watkins is the most outspoken of The Slow Hustle’s many talking heads, but even he confesses that “anything’s possible” when it comes to Suiter, given that it’s difficult to ascertain the nature and degree of his involvement with the GTTF. The revelation that Suiter was granted limited immunity for testifying didn’t clear anything up either; the fact remains that it’s conceivable he was executed for planning to rat out his friends, shot in a random skirmish gone wrong, or killed by his own hand in order to avoid facing future legal prosecution.
The Slow Hustle doesn’t deliver a definitive resolution to its central question. What it does offer, however, is a forlorn perspective on a major metropolis whose police force has so betrayed the public’s trust that the truth is now impossible to determine—and, consequently, cynicism reigns supreme regarding the powers-that-be. Rather than just railing against the GTTF, Watkins spends time discussing the numerous similarities he shares with one of the convicted officers in order to highlight how Baltimore’s problems are less about individuals than about the environment in which they’re raised and operate. As he notes, despite numerous different mayors and police commissioners, nothing much has changed in Baltimore over the years aside from the names of those engaging in criminal activity.
It’s that systemic rot which proves to be The Slow Hustle’s fundamental subject. And with little apparent will to transform police departments (and their cultures of silence and coercion) or the political institutions that support them, it comes across as a deeply rooted malady for which there’s no easy cure.