Newark Mayor Cory Booker was furious about the 8,000-word Esquire magazine profile of him and his beloved city. “I exploded,” he says in the new documentary, Brick City, “with just, rage, when I read it.” The 2008 article described Booker’s heroic quest to awaken the “city of zombies” and the “Goddamn Zulus” residing in Jersey. Indeed, it was a stunningly racist portrait of Newark and its leader, written by Scott Raab, an accomplished (white) writer you’d expect to know better. When he wasn’t summoning violins with purple prose about “cannibal,” “animal” violence, he was anointing Cory Booker as a green-eyed Magical Super Negro, swooping into battle with “old school ghetto despots” to save the “feckless negritude” of Newark.
You know, typical, stereotypical, welcome-to-the-jungle reporting—Booker as the Great Yellow Hope. And Esquire even had the nerve to say he wore bad suits! A few minutes after the mayor's on-air tirade, his radio show co-host David Cruz lays a concerned hand on Booker’s shoulder. “Well, you probably shouldn’t have told the guy," says Cruz, "that you tore the crotch of your suit pants ….”
“I know,” Booker says, looking wounded. “… I really trusted him.“
“Did you learn a lesson?” Cruz says, “because you can never trust the media.”
It was an interesting time to complain, as seconds earlier, Cruz had been grilling Booker for their monthly local call-in radio show, and Brick City documentary film cameras recorded the whole exchange. The much talked-about five-part series (directed by Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin and executive produced by Forest Whitaker) debuted last week on the Sundance Channel and will have its encore starting Saturday. Even when he’s complaining about the media, to the media, while being filmed by another member of the media, Cory Booker has a message he needs to get out. It’s all part of the job description of today’s "urban" leader. The battle for the future of communities like Newark begins with changing perceptions. Before he can change the institutions, he has to change the narrative about them. (And if that means taking on Conan O’Brien via YouTube, then so be it.)
A whole and more accurate story would explain that post-industrial communities like Newark have become veritable islands, cut off from the kind of resources needed to truly address deep-seated issues. The story might begin somewhere before slavery, then move on to racial and economic segregation.
Booker knows as well as any other black person in Newark that the endless hagiography being spilled about him since his 2006 election is simplistic and plain inaccurate.
As he told Cruz: “The reality is there are heroes all over this city. I struggle to match their greatness every single day.”
Later, he promised that “we are on pace to make Newark the model for urban transformation.”
“We are going to rewrite the books on crime. Newark, New Jersey.”
“Look at who is coming to Newark now. Businesses are moving here. Law firms are coming to our city.”
Still, as inspiring as Brick City can be, it trades in some of the same Super Negro tropes that were in the Esquire article. In both, Booker willingly plays the role of urban safari tour guide. For the Brick City crew, Booker ignored Cruz’s counsel and gave them access for months on end.
During Esquire’s months-long embed, Booker demanded that a member of security detail “take them to where drugs were being sold, right now. ” The writer approved, gushing “you don’t need much time with Booker to feel … that bond of brotherhood and inspiration—although it surely helps to be Caucasian.” (Umm, OK.)
As cringe-worthy as these negotiations are to watch at times, there must be interlopers like Booker, bridging boundaries between worlds. Race is tightly woven into the Newark story, but at its essence, we are talking about deep-seated economic segregation. Yes, a black man is in charge—but guess what? Thanks to middle-class flight, you’ve got greater social needs supported by a smaller tax base. The black principal inherits crumbling school buildings, higher needs and higher expectations. So Booker indulges the messengers.
The Esquire hack rejoices that “he is fucking Will Smith!” while the Brick City filmmakers suggest he’s Will Smith through its Rocky-esque sequences: Booker jogging in gray sweats in the streets. Booker tossing a football with neighborhood kids. Booker doing a spin move on the basketball court, then diving into the asphalt. A tight shot against a row of his security detail. Esquire likens him to Booker’s hero, Gandhi; the Brick City filmmakers focus in on the photo of Gandhi in his office. Again, and again … and again.
Before Brick City aired last week, Booker complained about the filmmakers’ depiction of his city as well. “I'm very concerned that it's not the kind of portrait that I want of our city as a whole,” Booker said. But he knows the deal. So he’s doing his part to promote Brick City—media appearances, plus hyping the docs availability on iTunes through his personal Twitter.
The mayor’s dance with the media isn’t always pretty, but bottom line—people have short attention spans. And more importantly, the corporate, political and economic powers-that-be have even shorter ones. The civil rights movement proved that to pin the hopes and dreams of an entire community on one charismatic individual is not a wise move. But for now, it does help. Watch Brick City and see the fruits of Booker’s open-kimono approach.
“I’d like to pledge $15,000,” one businessman says in the film. It’s not exactly clear what he’s pledging the money for, but another businessman is quick to jump in match the pledge—and up the ante.
“We will pledge at least $15,000,” a second businessman says. “And we would like to move our office here, in this building.”
Listen to the delegation of investors from China: “Why moving here? So here this is cheap. New Jersey more cheap.”
Booker even has something for the New Jersey Nets (who try to resist his charms). “I’m just going to take [them] to the hoop,” Booker says with a sly grin. “I’m going to do it—for the people.”
Natalie Hopkinson is associate editor of The Root.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.