Friday, January 8, 2010

On DVD: "Brick City"

The electrifying 2005 documentary Street Fight introduced filmgoers to Cory Booker, the young underdog mounting an uphill battle for the Newark mayor’s post against 16-year officeholder Sharpe James (a corrupt member of the political “old boys’ network,” later convicted of five counts of fraud). In 2008, filmmakers Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin (Slam) went to Newark to embark on a multi-faceted documentary portrait of the city in flux, focusing not only on Booker’s progressive administration, but the attempts to change the city’s fates from within the police department, school system, and gangs.

The resulting miniseries, Brick City, is a fast-paced, fascinating look at the complexities of city government and urban life; multiple critics dubbed it a nonfiction version of The Wire (and indeed, the three separate pull quotes on the DVD cover stating as much might be a bit of overkill), but it’s an accurate (and deserved) comparison. The five one-hour installments span from Spring 2008 through the historic November election, as Booker watched another charismatic young African-American with an impressive academic history and a gift for oratory ascend to the highest office in the land.

But Booker isn’t the sole focus of the series, which finds interesting characters throughout the city: Garry McCarthy, the tough, dedicated Bronx native who serves as director of police; Ras Baraka and Todd Warren, the principal and vice-principal of Central High School; “Street Doctor,” the face out front of the Street Warriors community outreach group; and Dashaun “Jiwe” Morris, gang member-turned-author/activist. But they find their primary human drama in the story of Jayda and Creep, both former gang members, now reformed; she was a Blood and he was a Crip, giving a nice Romeo & Juliet vibe to their subplot.

One of the joys of a story like this is the unexpected connections between the people involved; it’s surprising, for example, when tough Vice-Principal Warren turns out to be one of the peacemakers in Jayda and Creep’s occasionally turbulent relationship. But all are enamored of Booker, who is clearly the series’ star, a legitimately passionate and engaging leader—and also a bit of a smooth operator, seen speaking Spanish to Latino constituents in one scene and tossing out some Yiddish to a group of Jewish businessmen in the very next one. But he seems like the real deal, his hard work borne out of a sense of obligation to the community rather than political gamesmanship. He lives in one of the city’s rougher neighborhoods, mentors a young man who once made an attempt on his life, and goes out on late night patrols with the police. In one extraordinary scene late in the series, he makes a quick stop at a grocery store and encounters the sister of a mother of three who was murdered in the streets that very day; the way he speaks to her, comforting and warm, bespeaks a genuineness that is disarming. He’s a truly sympathetic figure—so much so that when a woman at a community meeting announces, “I feel like you have failed me,” it stings us too.

The show’s six months in the life of the city are seen, probably accurately, as a series of crises and potential disasters: shootings, arrests, gang warfare, budget shortfalls, politics and in-fighting at the police department, and a looming, possibly unfeasible opening date for a new high school ten years (and $100 million) in the making. There are some concerns up front that the filmmakers are trying to take on too much, and doing it too fast, in too fragmented a style—we have to work a little to keep up. But once we have our bearings, the series draws the viewer in; it is gripping, riveting, intelligent television, and by the second episode, even something as seemingly mundane as a budget meeting makes for a compelling scene. The directors’ only real misstep is in their use of occasional visual trickery (like slo-mo and faux-step printing); the filmmaking is so seamless otherwise, this unnecessary stylization calls attention to itself.

The various disparate elements are pulled together in the show’s knockout final hour, which juggles the city council race (in which the Booker-endorsed candidate faces off against the Sharp James-ish Charlie Bell), the Obama campaign, and the “Blood Initiation Day” (with the gang announcing a goal of 25 murders) with real urgency and power. Principal Baraka speaks plainly, openly, and heatedly to his students, telling them that the dangers and odds that they face on a daily basis “doesn’t mean you’re tough, it means you’re oppressed.” It’s a stunning moment, the kind of speech that any actor worth his salt would sell his soul to deliver in a film. The fact that this is no actor, but a dedicated educator who faces these problems every day, makes it all the more powerful.

If Street Fight was the story of Booker the campaigner, Brick City is the story of Booker the legislator; he learns, as President Obama has, that they are two very different beasts. “Everybody talks about reform, but nobody wants to change,” notes Police Director McCarthy. “Change comes hard.” The troubles in our cities, the attempts at change, and resistance to them are not unique to Newark, New Jersey; they’re happening all across our country right now, and Brick City skillfully and intelligently captures this specific, difficult moment in 21st century America.

"Brick City" is currently available on DVD.

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