By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009
All you fans of "The Wire," who went on and on about how real and gripping it was? It's time to put your DVR where your mouth is and invest the time required to watch "Brick City" -- a sprawling, absorbing, five-part documentary about life and crime in Newark, airing this week on the Sundance Channel.
Filmed during the summer and fall of 2008, "Brick City" is at times overloaded with passionate speeches about hope and optimism. Most of these are delivered by Cory Booker, the city's dedicated, young, almost superhumanly articulate mayor. The camera loves Booker, whose handsome face lights up Newark's darkest corners with an irresistibly infectious smile and hazel eyes.
Monday's episode opens with the mayor on his early-morning run, in which he deliberately huffs and puffs past recent homicide sites. As such, viewers unfamiliar with Booker will need most of an hour to begin to trust that "Brick City," produced and directed by Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin, is more than just an ad for Booker's 2010 reelection bid.
Stick with it. The filmmakers had nine months of seemingly unfettered access to the mayor, his staff, the police department, crime scenes, meetings and the opening of a long-delayed new high school.
We watch as Booker multitasks the relentless concerns of city hall, but it's more interesting to see him crunk dance with little girls or invite young men to a game of pickup ball at midnight. Even watching him grocery-shop turns into something else entirely, when he spontaneously spends $200 on groceries for another customer, who is the sister of the day's shooting victim.
The filmmakers also immersed themselves in the lives of several city residents -- including the summer cookouts, funerals and other gatherings of the city's Blood gang, where one member, a young, single mother named Jayda, has fallen in love with a member of the rival Crips. His name is Creep, and Jayda is carrying his child. Jayda knows she's a documentary maker's dream come true, and, unprompted, supplies the "West Side Story" comparison herself. (Creep is also an irresistible character to follow. "I want to get a house so big that when I send the kids to their rooms, they're gonna think they've run away," he dreams, over IHOP pancakes.)
"Brick City's" strongest impact comes from a never-ending supply of forlorn faces, slackened jaws and weary eyes -- the residents of Newark who are constantly being told (and told, and told) to . . . to do what? Be better people? Stop killing one another? Love one another? Help one another? Help themselves? Learn? Believe?
All of the above. Booker rallies his constituents at playgrounds, street parties and community meetings. Pastors implore them at churches. Youth ministers hand out Entenmann's cakes and beg kids to stay straight. For all its compelling detail, "Brick City's" real accomplishment is to finally put you and me in that gymnasium folding chair of communal despair.
A large chunk of "Brick City" focuses on Jayda's drama, as she fights off a 2004 assault charge that could very well put her in prison. Jayda lives with Creep, where they are raising her son and his daughter, and expecting a baby girl -- though whenever they fight, Jayda whips out a list of abortion providers and waves it around.
She also mentors teenage girls about staying strong, chaste and crime-free, all the while keeping a good-standing membership in the Bloods. This contradiction will likely upset many viewers, but something about this young woman works, and "Brick City" has the patience to give her story the nuance and shape that no piece of fiction could quite get. Jayda is a metaphor for Newark, where nothing ever makes perfect sense.
And so the series returns to the operatic frenzy of everyday politics in such a city. Another story line focuses on Garry McCarthy, Newark's virile, tough-talking director of police. McCarthy was hired from the New York Police Department by Booker in 2006 and given carte blanche to reduce the homicide rate. In the middle of a somewhat successful summer (killings are down 40 percent or so), McCarthy is thrust into a power struggle between himself and the nominal chief of police, and it's up to Booker to remain resolute in the face of a lawsuit asserting old cop traditions.
"Brick City" is long, and worth it, but it takes two episodes for a viewer to appreciate its breadth and pace. It seized my heart (and attention span) in Part 3, when Todd Warren, a barrel-chested vice principal at Central High School (which opened after 10 years and $100 million in construction costs and other hurdles) tells a roomful of teenage boys who've had little or no contact with their fathers that he's going to teach them how to tie a necktie.
Which brings things back around to Cory Booker. In a strange way, we ache for the mayor the same way I ached for those boys. He had a good father and knows how to tie a necktie, but nowhere in the five hours of "Brick City" does Booker interact with anyone quite like himself. No one -- not even his parents, really -- speaks to him with the same energy and love he emits, and he frequently jokes about his bachelorhood and loneliness. It's curious how Booker gets the most screen time, and yet he's the one person "Brick City" fails to truly penetrate.
He's also not entirely happy with the film, according to recent interviews. He thinks it's too negative, that it dwells too much on crime and not enough on "all the good things" that are happening in Newark -- you know, the condo developments, the new business opportunities and so on.
I disagree. "Brick City" has listened intently and respectfully to the people of Newark, lifted them off a stack of statistics, and made them, for once, real.
Brick City (five parts, one-hour episodes) airs Monday through Friday at 10 p.m. on Sundance.