In the first few minutes of Brick City, a five-episode miniseries airing this week on the Sundance Channel, it’s easy to see the parallels to HBO’s The Wire. Young and charismatic Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker, 40, is the black Tommy Carcetti. Newark’s gangbangers are Baltimore’s drug kingpins. Then there’s the police director and police chief locked in a very Baltimorean, who’s-the-Man power struggle—fighting to “keep crime down.”
If you’re looking for some real television—real-life, riveting, can’t-wait-till-the-next-episode television—then set your DVRs to Brick City, a real-life television series on the city of Newark’s politics, crime and effort toward community renewal.
Directed by Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin (with Forest Whitaker as executive producer), Brick City trains an unblinking eye on the problems of the city, confronting the viewer with the same problems facing too many of America’s cities. From the 10-year-old boy killed by a stray bullet in the opening scene to a bus load of kids with absentee fathers on Father’s Day, there’s plenty of upset to go around. In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes, you get a peek into Newark’s broken school system as the principal of Central High School tells a group of students that the 10-year-long, $100 million construction of their new school might not be finished in time for the new semester. “They done promised this building for us, and we still didn’t get it. It ain’t right,” one girl says. “I feel like Walter Younger in Raisin in the Sun. We’re being turned away from our new home,” says the school’s principal, Ras Baraka.
The kids, who had to pack up their own dilapidated school, looked upon the sea of brown boxes filled with textbooks and school supplies with the realization that they had been left behind.
Brick City is not a lame, bureaucratic political drama. Nor is it a staged set of confessionals about the troubles of governing a city in the process of renewal. Instead, it provides an all-access pass into Newark’s public sector. The camera stays trained on all the action, from the city budget meetings and community speakouts to Blood barbecues and midnight 3-on-3 basketball tournaments. Each episode is broken up into vignettes set off by quotes from the power players and the community members—no cheesy narration, no seemingly scripted camera-on-character interviews à la VH1 or Bravo.
There are lots of compelling stories here. It’s easy to get hooked on the real-life soap opera of Jayda Jacques and Darel “Creep” Evans, two gangbangers caught up in a Romeo and Juliet type of relationship. She’s a Blood. He’s a Crip. Both now inactive members, they’ve turned their lives around, focusing on their two kids and baby on the way, and also steering the young people around them down a different path from the one they originally took. Creep mentors young boys at Integrity House, a therapeutic community for people seeking a lifestyle change. As part of her self-improvement program, Jayda started Nine Strong Women, a nonprofit group, to teach young girls that they “don’t have to bang to prove a point.” You’ll root for Jayda and Creep to win, even as she faces a four-year-old assault charge that could put her in jail and after she kicks Creep out for allegedly messing around with his ex-girlfriend.
Not all of Newark’s residents were happy with Hollywood’s coming to town. Early in the first episode, a man aggressively approaches the camera man yelling, “Go find some black people having a good f***ing time! This ain’t a lead-in to Oprah!”
But for the last 40 years, the good times have been few and far between in Newark. The embattled city is still recovering from the 1967 riots; its last three mayors—Hugh J. Addonizio, Kenneth Gibson and Sharpe James—were indicted on criminal charges. In 1996, Time magazine called it “the most dangerous city in the nation.” But now, Booker, who was elected in 2006, has restructured the police department, implemented a job program for recently released felons and started a summer internship program for high school students. The city’s homicide rate decreased by more than 30 percent in 2008. “Crime is down; shootings are down.” That’s what you’ll hear over and over, and over again, in between Booker’s inspiring speech to the police academy and quick pep talks to students and anyone who’ll listen.
Throughout the series, you’ll meet other members of the community who are just as hopeful about their city. There’s “Street Doctor” who, perhaps in a nod to Bill Cosby’s 2004 “Pound Cake Speech,” passes out Entenmann’s cakes to local kids to keep them off the streets. There’s Baraka (son of renowned writer Amiri Baraka), the Central High principal, and Todd Warren, the vice principal, who teach a class of teenage boys how to tie a tie. When they ask the class whose father was not in their lives, nearly everyone in the class raises his hand.
So, yes, in some sense, Brick City tells the same old sad story of ghetto life: fatherless kids, gang-ridden streets and ambitious politicians. But ultimately, it is a story about hope and the community that heralds it.
To that end, it’s a shame that Brick City will last only through the week. The miniseries proves that reality TV, in its realest and truest form, can be art.
Erin Evans is a copy editor and writer for The Root.