Brick City debuts tonight on Sundance Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Things change. That, in a nutshell, could be the theme of the second season of Mark Levin and Mark Benjamin's documentary series about Newark, New Jersey, and a whole raft of people—notably the mayor, Cory Booker, his Director of Police, Garry McCarthy, and several former gang members turned community activists—trying to turn the beleaguered city around. The first season, which was filmed in late 2008 and aired early in 2009, took full notice of the problems facing the city but still managed to seem hopeful and optimistic; it partook of the spirit that many people got caught up in around the time of Obama's inauguration, which hadn't fully faded away until the series was in the can. Most of the people who figured prominently in that first season figure prominently in this one, but the politicians are frustrated by budget limitations and the public perception that they're ineffectual or worse, and many of their former supporters are caught up in anti-incumbent fever. As for the people closer to the street, the ones who want to concentrate their energies on saving young people from the lure of drugs or gang violence, they've got their hands full just staying out of prison themselves.
In the first episode of the new season, it's fall of 2009, and Booker is often seen at the side of New Jersey's then-governer Jon Corzine, who's running for re-election. Since anyone who's likely to be watching this show probably already cares enough about New Jersey or politics in general to know that Corzine got crushed in that election by the Republican challenger, Chris Christie, Corzine's presence here is ominous, even a little hair-raising; he's like a vulture perched on Booker's shoulder. Soon, Christie is being touted in the papers as the new hero of the Republican party, a budget hawk who, it says in the headline of a newspaper littering Booker's office, is "cutting with compassion." Meanwhile, half the local population seems to be gathered outside City Hall, yelling for the Mayor's head.
Booker himself is a fascinating figure, all the more so for how he manages to frustrate all attempts to get a read on him as a human being, even as he threatens to become the best-documented politician under 45 in the entire country. Booker made his movie debut in the 2005 feature documentary Street Fight, which recorded his first run for mayor against Sharpe James, a veteran machine politician who'd held the office for sixteen years. It turned out to be a campaign that was surreal in its ugliness: Both James and Booker are black, but James managed to paint Booker, who grew up in an affluent section of the state and holds degrees from Oxford, Stanford, and Yale Law School, as not just a snooty outsider but as not black enough. (Garry McCarthy, whom Booker brought in from New York, is also seen being targeted as an "outsider." The attitude of many vocal Newark residents seems to be that their city might be a crime-ridden, economically depressed hellhole, but goddammit, it's their crime-ridden, economically depressed hellhole.)
After declining to run for re-election in 2006, thus leaving the field clear for Booker, Sharpe James was convicted on five counts of fraud and served eighteen months in federal prison. At the end of the third episode of Brick City, he comes home, and crowds of well-wishers are waiting to greet his Greyhound bus. Rahaman Muhammad, a union leader who says he supported Cory Booker "when nobody would touch his butt with a ten-foot pole" but now favors the opposition, says of Sharpe James and the old guard, "At least they understood the city they represented." An old man who speaks up at a City Council meeting seems to sum up much of the popular feeling about the current Mayor when he says, "Robots don't bleed, and neither do corrupt politicians."
It's not that Booker doesn't seem concerned or engaged or incapable, necessarily. He's boxed in, though, with angry former constituents who see him as having betrayed his promises on one side and political antagonists, like Christie, who feel that they have both the political upper hand and the moral high ground and aren't interested in compromising. Booker is seen spending a lot of time concentrating on things like his online profile, sending the troops Twitter shout-outs on Election Day and selecting which videos of him should go on YouTube. No doubt he's right to think that things would be going worse for him if he left it to others to shape his image. But his self-composed, cerebral quality can drive a lot of people crazy, because they think it must mean that he's slick and lacks passion. In the fourth episode, when kids converge on City Hall to protest cuts in the school budget, someone is seen asking, "Where's Cory at? He could have at least twitted in."
It's Deshawn "JIWE" Morris, an activist and author whose teenage gang activities cost him a college athletic career, who feels most like the hero of Brick City. JIWE, who's facing a murder charge over a shooting that he describes as an act of accidental self-defense and who has to choose between agreeing to do six-and-a-half years or going to trial to risk being sentenced to 81 years in prison, has a touching, quiet melancholy about him, whether he's getting bad news from his lawyer or watching Booker and Barack Obama stumping for Corzine. (In the course of the first four episodes, he only smiles once, fleetingly, while watching high school kids on the football field and maybe recalling his own past glories.) It makes his stubborn, uphill battle trying to persuade kids who have nothing that they should work hard and think long term all the more impressive.
It also makes him stand out in a show that captures the current national trend toward treating politics as a species of performance art. Everybody seems to be intent on giving their lungs a workout, though not everyone sees the need to establish that they know what they're talking about. Clifford Minor, who's running for mayor in the upcoming election, answers a reporter's question about the incumbent's job performance by saying, "I have no idea what Cory Booker is doing. We are here as a team running against Cory Booker." A woman speaking at public meeting over the school budget responds to objections over her choice of words by insisting that she has "clearance from the governor's office" to refer to Chris Christie, who's been on the receiving end of more than a few fat jokes in his time, as "Krispy Kreme."
Each episode of Brick City is broken up with onscreen quotes from the people onscreen, which automatically calls up memories of The Wire. It's harder to get that kind of dramatic encapsulation of a major American city working without screenwriters and actors deliberately working to shape the material, but Brick City manages to capture a picture of the shape and mood of the country now, in microcosm. It's compelling and disturbing, partly because almost everyone in it really seems to want to improve things, but there doesn't seem to be anything they can do that would make a lot of difference for the better. And none of them can agree on anything, except maybe that everyone else is doing something that isn't helping.