I’m sick of Cory Booker. The charismatic Newark mayor has been a media darling since he made a first run for that office in 2002. Between this and this and even in this magazine, he has been profiled and interviewed and talked about so much I feel like I might know more about him and the Byzantine ways of Newark politics than I have ever wanted to. So I approached the Sundance Channel documentary series Brick City with something like cynicism. But the five-part series is a bit of a revelation: The series chronicles Newark’s problems and the realistic but irrepressible people who are fighting to find some solutions.
Brick City is visually rich, full of well-composed shots set against the austere backdrop of crumbling buildings, empty storefronts and vistas of urban prairie. The first episode starts with Mayor Booker running through Newark’s streets during the pre-dawn, juxtaposed with a montage of images taken from the 1967 Newark riots and modern day construction sites, crime scenes and funerals. The implication is that the Newark of today is still dealing with its past ghosts: its high crime rate, massive disinvestment and lack of jobs, its underfunded schools. The city needs more—more resources, more money, more outside investment—but it doesn’t have any of that—just budget cuts and the necessity of having to do more with less. With this grim background, the series sprawls out, focusing on the stories of individuals: of ex-offender Ali Muslim’s personal grief over his dead son and the many dead children of Newark; of high school principal Ras Baraka, trying to get his new high school building up and running and hoping to keep his students safe; of police director Garry McCarthy, a New York transplant obsessed with reducing Newark’s murder rate even as gang shootings rip through the streets.
The story of gang members Jayda (Blood) and Creep (Crip), who are having a baby but still learning to trust each other, gives the series its heart. Jayda has moved on from her violent old days, but is dogged by an old assault violation that threatens to land her back in prison. Despite those worries, she still finds time to mentor a group of girls, so that they don’t make her mistakes.
Mayor Booker is still the star, though, running from fundraising meetings and ribbon cutting ceremonies to nighttime basketball games with kids and jumping out of cars to tell teens to go home or to buy groceries for a family that has just suffered from a violent tragedy. He’s tireless and tirelessly optimistic. “I have no right to think anything else but that Newark, New Jersey is going to shock the world,” says Booker at a violence awareness event. And at the end, I have to say, even I believed.
Brick City will be re-airing on the Sundance Channel throughout October.