In Brick City, Sundance Channel’s five-part documentary series about life in Newark, NJ circa 2008, the camera crew follows Cory Booker, a mayor who is passionate about making a difference in the crime beleaguered city. Along with the mayor, directors Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin (and producer Forest Whitaker) also zoom in on the efforts of community activists, Central High School Principal Ras Baraka, the Newark police department, and even two gang members who have fallen in love and work to help make their community a better place: Jada (a Blood) and Creep (a Crip).
Often compared in feel and tone with HBO’s The Wire, Brick City has the same type of honest, gritty immediacy. Booker, a highly charismatic mayor with a focus on healing the city, even though the tanked economy has made his dream of lowering the crime rate even more arduous, never seems at a loss for new ideas or words of encouragement for those with flagging spirits.
In the first episode, “Summer is Ours,” we learn that Newark is leading the nation in terms of homicide reduction. The mayor and police chief work together to devise systems and programs to thwart the traditional spike in crime during the months of July and August. Meanwhile, new mom, gang member and community counselor Jada is a study in contrasts, especially in her relationship with a rival gang member named Creep.
As a viewer (and reviewer), I found myself put off by these two and felt bad for their child. The language is rough and the fact that they’re still active gang members felt morally precarious. But, as the filming went along, I understood their experiences speak directly to gang members and that is why Jada’s counseling, in particular, is more effective coming from her authentic streetwise point of view. Still, when she and Creep find out they are expecting a new baby, I didn’t exactly feel their joy.
In the second episode, called “Struggle,” Jada finds herself in jail and Creep has to take care of the kids, the Mayor is facing some pretty grim budget issues, Governor Corzine teams up with Booker to create a new state program that will help ex-cons find jobs, and (yay, good news!) the crime rate is not rising as expected. However, the strain on Jada and Creep is beginning to tear apart the fabric of their relationship.
Brick City first ran on the Sundance Channel in September 2009, so most likely there will be reruns. If you can catch it, check it out—especially for the unflinching, inside look at how Newark's community activists work hard to balance their turbulent personal lives while reaching out to help make a difference to others.