Located in the shadow of the New York City skyline, gritty Newark, New Jersey stands in stark contrast to glitzy, glittery image of Manhattan. For those who live outside of its boundaries, Newark is a stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, an airport or a euphemism for poverty, crime and corruption, the butt of a litany of “anywhere but there” jokes. Newark’s nickname is “Brick City” and, as residents explain in the five-part Sundance Channel documentary of the same name, you’ve got to be strong to survive its streets.
Brick City isn’t as much about Newark as it is about crime in Newark. In recent years, the city regularly appeared at or near the top of rankings of America’s most dangerous cities. The summer before Brick City was filmed, Newark made national headlines when three college students were killed and another injured after being shot — execution-style — in a schoolyard.
A current of tension runs through Brick City, which was filmed during the summer and fall of 2009. Directors Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin take viewers inside city officials’ crime statistic summits, where we learn that Newark’s murder rate is on track to be nearly 40 percent below prior years’. But city leaders – and ordinary residents – know that there is no guarantee that Newark has turned a corner.
Benjamin and Levin find plenty to celebrate in Newark. A group of men who call themselves the Street Warriors take local boys on a trip to the beach for Father’s Day. During an overnight at Central High School, Principal Ras Baraka and Vice Principal Todd Warren teach young men – most of whom do not have a relationship with their fathers — how to properly knot a tie.
But the shadow of past tragedies hangs over Brick City and though Benjamin and Levin quickly entice viewers to cheer for a happy ending, there’s also a feeling that the other shoe is about to drop.
Benjamin and Levin find their leading man in Newark Mayor Cory Booker. He’s passionate, charming, wicked smart and has the kind of star quality that makes you want to keep your eyes on him.
Without Booker, Brick City would have come to a screeching halt each time the action detoured to City Hall. But Booker is also a public official, and a media savvy one at that. Although he grants the directors more access, and shows more warts, than most politicians would, Booker still projects a certain amount of reserve. Although the filmmakers capture some compelling footage, they don’t quite crack his shell.
That’s why the credit for Brick City’s ultimate success goes to Levin and Benjamin’s telling of the story of gang member turned activist Jayda.
In Jayda, the audience sees every contradiction of life on Newark’s streets. At the beginning of Brick City, Jayda has turned her life around. She’s raising her young son and is in a steady relationship with Creep, a member of a rival gang who is now a youth counselor. Jayda mentors teen girls and she wants to expand her efforts by starting a nonprofit.
Jayda’s past catches up with her that summer and her relationship begins to crumble. Benjamin and Levin capture her at her most confident – cautioning young girls about the dangers of the streets. But they were also there to film her in moments of vulnerability and anger. Booker might be the hero of Brick City, but Jayda is its heart.
Each episode includes a brief commentary by Levin and Benjamin. In one of those features, they explain that crime became the focus of the documentary because, unlike Booker’s efforts to bring business back to town for example, it was easy to show visually. No doubt Brick City would not be as compelling if the focus was on economic development. But some of the other story threads, such as the race to fill an open City Council seat, could have been explored more deeply.
Brick City ends with the ultimate symbol of hope: the birth of a child. But Levin and Benjamin are careful not to completely tie up loose ends, or offer any definitive solution to Newark’s challenges. In reality, there is no single solution and not every attempt to fix things is successful. But the documentary shows that Brick City is full of residents working every day to make a difference, one problem at a time.