Wall Street Journal: Newark's Second Season

January 29th, 2011

Wall Street Journal

JANUARY 29, 2011

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Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker is riding a roller coaster in his second term, perhaps perfect fodder for the filmmakers of “Brick City,” the acclaimed docuseries about New Jersey’s largest city.

Much of the documentary follows the highs and lows of the mayor as he works with Police Director Garry McCarthy and others as they strive to lower the crime rate, meet resistance as “outsiders,” and attempt to do more with less as the financial crisis hits. Other footage follows Bloods and Crips gang members in their efforts to “de-gang.”

“Brick City” directors and executive producers Mark Benjamin (“The Last Party,” “Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop”) and Marc Levin (“Street Time,” “Slam,” “Godfathers and Sons”), who grew up in Elizabeth and Maplewood, N.J., have spent more than 1,000 hours and the last few years with the mayor. (Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker is also an executive producer.)

The first season, often painted as a nonfiction version of HBO’s “The Wire,” won a Peabody Award and earned an Emmy nomination. The second season has its premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday on the Sundance Channel.

Monica Williams of The Wall Street Journal spoke with Messrs. Levin and Benjamin about “Brick City” (the city is nicknamed for its architectural style and urban strength) and what’s next for its 280,000 residents.

WSJ: In ‘Brick City,’ Newark isn’t always portrayed positively. You follow gang members, police and officials who are charged with crimes while often omitting the affluence. What’s been the reaction in Newark?

Mr. Levin: The reaction has been mixed. A lot of people love it. They say give us more. Others say we’re not showing all the good stuff—the nice homes, the campuses of Rutgers, Seton Hall. This was never going to be a Chamber of Commerce film. The premiere was a wild event. There were 1,000 people there with the police and bomb-sniffing dogs. This is a microcosm of what the country is. If you can’t fix the communities, you can’t fix the country. We could take you to Maplewood and Montclair and show you the effects of all the foreclosures.

You connected with the highest level of government as well as gangs. Why Newark? How were you able to integrate with a community that isn’t like you?

Mr. Levin: The Bloods came to me. These guys knew more about my work than most people. They said, ‘You need to look at Columbia High School [in Maplewood]. There are Bloods and Crips at Columbia High School. You need to come home. You don’t even know what’s happening in your own backyard.’ We wanted to do a film about de-ganging but no one wanted that. We brought Cory Booker into the picture.

Some of your key characters in the documentary are gang members. Many would say that you’re just pathologizing a downtrodden community. Why should the average law-abiding citizen care?

Mr. Levin: That really blows my mind. People say: ‘Why would you focus on gang members? They can’t change.’ How do we expect this country to change? What happens in this community affects all of us. This is all of our stories.

Last season ended with crime down in Newark and the Obama election signaling a new age. What’s new this season, which begins in October 2009?

Mr. Benjamin: This is the toughest year of Cory Booker’s life. You see how we leave Newark. This one ends on a note of hope. The climate is brutal and an ultimate test of character and leadership. [The gang members] meet resistance just as much.

Early episodes of this season seem to focus more on Mr. Booker, his fight for re-election and dealing with budget cuts than on anything.

Mr. Benjamin: This season slammed into the recession. In the midst of this, Cory Booker was trying to reinvent the city and he hit a wall. It was a perfect storm of an economic nightmare. Solvency is never an option for a mayor. We look at the issues relative to the recent police layoffs. Public safety is the most expensive item in the city.

Critics of Mr. Booker say he spends more time traveling, in Hollywood, on YouTube and building his account on Twitter, where he has more than one million followers, than he does on solving these problems. The three of you were just at the Sundance Film Festival with Mr. Whitaker promoting this series with a gala.

Mr. Levin: We’re in a new world. The way things were run in Newark before is classic where the patronage system was the model. That’s the way you ran a city. But that’s like someone riding by in a horse and buggy making fun of someone in a Model T. Half the kids in Newark don’t graduate. Here’s a guy who raises $250 million at a time when local governments are cutting across the board and you’re whining because he’s hobnobbing with Robert Redford and Oprah? This is the new paradigm.

This guy is tireless but he does have the issue of street cred. He’s from the suburbs, educated at Stanford and Yale. It’s not just all golden boy. It’s not so easy.

You’ve been embedded in Newark for three years, where you’ve seen lots of ups and downs in the political arena and in the projects. What’s the future for this city?

Mr. Benjamin: You can’t put Newark on the Rust Belt list of cities. Newark has some advantages that others don’t have. There’s the recent $100 million grant from [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg. The city’s proximity to New York is key. Look at Hoboken, Jersey City, Maplewood.

That was the direction things were going until the crash of 2008.

The lives of gangs and the ills of an urban city can forever make good footage. How long do you plan to stay in Newark?

Mr. Levin: Forest Whitaker would like us to stay 10 years. It’s tremendously fulfilling, but on the other hand it’s brutal. People say you can’t leave after two acts. Maybe it’s three.