Review: ‘Rat Film’ Analyzes Baltimore’s History of Injustice Through the Eyes of its Most Prevalent Pest

I sincerely doubt that you are ever going to see another movie like Rat Film. The documentary from filmmaker Theo Anthony is an unsettling mix of present-day interviews with city residents and backward-looking historical documents and research that trace how Baltimore’s legacy of injustice was formed, cemented, and maintained from the early 20th century until now. Yes, there are rats—baby rats, adult rats, alive rats, dead rats—but the film uses them as a conduit to expose the pockets of decay rotting Baltimore from the inside out. Rats are the symptom, not the disease.

Anthony considers the rats of Baltimore through a variety of different, sometimes contradicting, angles. There is the white man with his table literally full of guns, all of which he boasts about using to kill rats scurrying through his backyard. He has “Property of the Rat Czar” engraved on a gun and sounds positively gleeful when talking about “head shots.” There is the duo of black men buying peanut butter and lunch meat from a corner store as bait and then posting up at an alley with a fishing rod and a baseball bat, ready to lure in and then bash the brains of any rats who come their way. There are a few people who keep rats as pets, who let them rest on their heads and shoulders, who build play areas for them in their basements and play them songs on wooden recorders.

And there are the people who exist somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, who view the rats mostly as resources and tools—as food for pet snakes or participants in research studies. It is through the latter that Anthony pivots the film backward, tracing moments in Baltimore history that set a course for the city that all these decades later still hasn’t been corrected. Narrator Maureen Jones, with a pleasant, calm deadpan that she uses to great effect as a contrast to the horrible things she’s describing, takes us through it: a city resolution in 1911 that banned neighborhood integration, the first of its kind in the country; the Johns Hopkins University scientist whose work developing rat poison during World War II eventually transitioned into ideologies that were clearly veiled eugenics; the field trials of that rat poison in the slums around Baltimore, among people who had no defense or recourse for what was being done in their neighborhoods.

What is most horrendous, though, is the reveal of a 1933 map created by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, who went around Baltimore judging different areas of the city on their “residential security.” Their map graded neighborhoods from best to worst—in descending order, green, blue, yellow, and red shapes on their map—and the worst areas were considered “redlined,” meaning that people who lived there were denied loans and businesses based there didn’t receive investments. That map is compared with another from 2015 that measures vacancy, poverty, unemployment, and life-expectancy rates in the city, and the lingering effects of that 1933 assessment are simultaneously infuriating and yet not really that surprising at all.

But oh, right—the rats. Anthony does a good job subverting your expectations with quick cuts, long takes, and disconcerting visuals, forcing you to be an active viewer. He jumps from a video game that provides a human-level POV of Baltimore to one that presents a rat-level POV in a laboratory cage, a jarring switch; he holds a shot of a snake devouring a blind, translucent pink baby rat; he edits together footage of both the white and black men killing the rats they’ve deemed interlopers on their territory with a mix of predatory instinct and aggressive zeal. Their hatred of Baltimore’s pest problem is in some ways a unifier, but Anthony resists the idea that a shared disgust alone is a community builder. Too much else is problematic with the past and present of Baltimore for such an easy solution to be its future.

There are things here that don’t quite fit, like a focus on forensic investigation training and methods in the state and footage of a street-racing event, but Anthony has an unbelievably charismatic figure in city exterminator Harold Edmond, who has the clearly insightful commentary of “It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore. It’s always been a people problem.” Rat Film spends a lot of time with Edmond, driving around the city as he checks in with people and listens to their rat-focused grousing, and his man-in-the-trenches groundedness is a welcome contrast to Anthony’s otherwise unusual elements.

“We were trying to make a difference,” Edmond says of the city’s attempts to deal with its rat problem, but Anthony is clearly and effectively making the argument that Baltimore’s myriad issues are both exemplified by and yet broader than the vermin. If rats are the destroyer of the Baltimore, who or what will be its reconstruction? “Hush, hush, please,” Edmond says of most people’s reactions to rats, but Rat Film won’t abide your ignorance.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Guttenbergs