The Friendliest Town is a documentary observing and investigating the complex story of Kelvin Sewell, the first African American Police Chief of a small Maryland town, directed by journalist Stephen Janis. We got an opportunity to sit down with the team behind it.
Simply put, The Friendliest Town is investigative journalism at its best. Coming from The Real News Network Stephen Janis & Taya Graham, hosts of The Real News Network’s Police Accountability Report, and producers and co-creators of the award-winning podcast Truth and Reconciliation, it closely follows the developments around Kelvin Sewell’s successful time in his post in the small Maryland town of Pocomoke City, as well as his dramatic departure and the community’s response. It’s a story that has been developing for the better part of five years and still goes on.
According to director Stephen Janis, The Friendliest Town started as a story about a new way of policing, different from the corrupt way of Baltimore’s police department. “That was an exciting story in itself”, he says, but then the firing came, and it added a very strange new dimension. “Crime was down, the town was safer than ever before, but then they fire Kelvin? It didn’t add up.”
Prior to this, director Stephen Janis and Chief Sewell weren’t unknown to each other. In fact, Janis had visibility on Sewell in the context of the Baltimore Police Department, where Sewell worked in the homicide division for 22 years– the two even collaborated on a book together.
Sewell, after retiring from BPD, learned about a job opening in Pocomoke City, south of Baltimore on Maryland’s idyllic Eastern Shore, via a police friend who was the chief across the river in another town. “I really liked it there. I took the job and after a year I started running the department.”
The people of Pocomoke took to Chief Sewell delightfully. He initiated new and innovative community policing tactics that had never been applied in the area before, greatly improving the relationship between citizenry and the police, which is often a very adversarial relationship. In his tenure, Chief Sewell oversaw a dramatic drop in crime and implementation of an on-the-ground approach to policing. After his abrupt firing, Sewell reports, “People still call me asking, ‘Chief, when are you coming back?’ But after seeing the inner workings, I cannot return as a police chief.”
That passion and appreciation for Sewell is on full display in the documentary, which features many first-hand accounts and recordings of citizens participating in interviews and contentious public hearings and meetings. It is in these meeting in which some of the most tense moments in the documentary take place. But for the filmmakers, they had to confront the reality of being outsiders going into a small town.
Some people didn’t like the idea of media coming into the town. However, the team had developed interest and support over the course of production. “We came because there was a story; we didn’t come there to invent a story. The people that accepted us– they accepted us fully,” producer Taya Graham reported.
Ultimately, The Friendliest Town is a fascinating story revealing the lengths some will go to preserve the status quo. It is a real-world examination of systemic racism that is endemic in The United States regional and local governments. This is an accomplished documentary that is thoughtful, respectful, and tactical.
And just in the past month, this story continues. Director Stephen Janis and Producer Taya Graham drilled down into the details of how far prosecutors pushed the witness to testify against Sewell on an episode of The Police Accountability Report. The segment takes a closer look at the lengths prosecutors went to charge Sewell with a crime to retaliate for his discrimination lawsuit.
The Friendliest Town has a run time of 90 minutes. It is directed by Stephen Janis and produced by Stephen Janis and Taya Graham. It can be viewed on Amazon Prime or virtually at the Ocean City Film Festival; going on now until March 11, 2021.