Forest Whitaker, Getting Behind A 'Brick City' Hero NPR's Madeleine Brand speaks to Academy Award-winning actor-director Forest Whitaker about the Sundance Channel's Brick City. Whitaker was executive producer on the documentary series about Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and his crusade to take back the summer in his city.
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Forest Whitaker, Getting Behind A 'Brick City' Hero

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Forest Whitaker, Getting Behind A 'Brick City' Hero

Forest Whitaker, Getting Behind A 'Brick City' Hero

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Newark, New Jersey, is going to shock the world. That's what Mayor Cory Booker says at the outset of a five-part documentary series beginning tonight on the Sundance Channel. It's called "Brick City," the nickname of Newark. And Newark is a city with a long and troubled history of crime and urban blight. Cory Booker has made it his mission to turn that history around.

Mayor CORY BOOKER (Democrat, Newark, New Jersey): I want you all to know that my number one priority is the safety and security of our city. Right now, we're rolling around about a 40 percent reduction in murder. We're rolling about another 22 percent reduction in shootings. But it's still not enough. And this year, I need everybody here, all hands on deck. We've got to take the summer back.

BRAND: That's Mayor Cory Booker of Newark. The documentary followed Booker and other Newark residents throughout the summer last year. Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker is executive producer of the series, and he joins me now from NPR West.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. FOREST WHITAKER (Executive Producer, "Brick City"; Actor): It's good to be here.

BRAND: Now, you aren't from Newark, New Jersey, right? You grew up in L.A.?

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah, exactly. I was born in Texas. I was raised in South Central Los Angeles and then later in Carson, California.

BRAND: So what drew you to Newark and this project?

Mr. WHITAKER: It's about the story. I think we have many cities like Newark, New Jersey, all across the nation, and I think we have them here in Los Angeles. We have them in Detroit. We have them in so many different places, and so, I wanted to get a chance to speak about that. And Cory Booker seemed to be the individual that was setting an example that can be used across the country, and in some ways, maybe even across the world.

BRAND: And Cory Booker really is a compelling character and really the star of the movie. He's - for people who don't know who he is - he's a young African-American mayor. He's sort of in the mold of President Obama; a graduate of Yale and Oxford. And, you know, one minute you show him talking to Jewish investors, and he speaks Yiddish - he throws out Yiddish phrases - and the next, he's running across town to play midnight basketball in the housing projects.

Mr. WHITAKER: Yes.

BRAND: Is he for real?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: I kept asking myself, this guy, is he too good to be true?

Mr. WHITAKER: I know it's an amazing thing to watch him. I think that was what excited me about the project, because there's individuals like Cory who are so strongly rooted in what their beliefs are and uncompromising about it. And he empowers people, really. He's an extraordinary man.

BRAND: Well, how is he perceived in Newark, because he did run against former Mayor Sharpe James and lost? And that was the subject of a previous documentary. And there's a scene where you have Amiri Baraka, a longtime Newark resident and poet, calling Cory Booker, quote, "a White negro," who - and he doesn't like him at all. He doesn't like the fact that he's bringing in all these outsiders to run Newark. Is there a feeling, a suspicion in Newark that Booker is just going to use this as a platform for higher office and leave and not really do Newark right?

Mr. WHITAKER: I think that people are always suspicious of change. They are frightened of it. Here's a man who's coming into a city and saying: we can change things; we can stop the murder rate, we can lower it; we can change the housing problem; we can bring job into the city - a city that's been destroyed by all these problems in the past. And he comes in and actively begins to do things, and I think that startles people. That frightens people. And their pessimism gets in the way of they're being able to see what's really occurring, because he has accomplished a lot of those things that he spoke of.

BRAND: He has lowered the crime rate - the murder rate (unintelligible).

Mr. WHITAKER: The murder rate by 40 percent. He lowered it by 40 percent. I mean, last year in 2008, it was the city that had the greatest reduction in crime.

BRAND: And you portray this as a very difficult, an uphill battle. There's a very compelling scene at Central High School with Ras Baraka. He's the principal of Central High School, Amiri Baraka's son.

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah. Yes.

BRAND: He is a very compelling character, and he gives a very moving speech to his students after a kid is shot outside the school.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Brick City")

Mr. RAS BARAKA (Principal, Central High School): (As himself) You living this life like it's normal. It is abnormal to go to school to talk about your friends dying, to not be able to walk home safely from school, to be jumped every other day, to fail everything, to live in squalor, to have people's parents coming outside fighting with them in the middle of the street.

This is not normal to be going to the hospital every other week, to be wearing t-shirts that say Rest in Peace, to be writing rest in peace on the wall. This is not normal. It's not normal. And nobody else's children do this.

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah, it's so powerful.

BRAND: That's amazing.

Mr. WHITAKER: It's really moving. There's so many moments in the documentary that are so moving because it's so true. I mean, these children are thinking that it's a normal thing just to see death around them, for their classmates to be shot, for them to lose their family and their homes. It's a sad statement.

I worked on another documentary about gangs here in Los Angeles. It was called "Crips & Bloods: Made in America," and inside of that, there's a quote, and it talks about kids from these urban environments, and it says that a lot of the kids are suffering from more post-traumatic stress syndrome than those in Iraq. Two separate psychological studies show this because they're so used to it, that the gunshots - they don't react to the gunshots in their own environment, to death, to loss. They understand it or have written it off in certain ways. And I think this man, Ras Baraka, is very inspirational because he's just trying to give these - he is giving these children a sense of hope and a sense of moving forward in his school, even though there's struggles even in getting a place for them to learn.

BRAND: I understand that when your film was screened in Newark, there was a scene where - in the movie, there's a guy who's yelling at the news cameras who've come to cover the latest shooting, to say go find a good story.

(Soundbite of movie, "Brick City")

Unidentified Man: Go find some people having a good time. That's all you (censored) focus on is tragedy. Go find some black people having a good (censored) time right here, right now.

BRAND: When that was screened, the audience cheered in Newark.

Mr. WHITAKER: Yes.

BRAND: And do you feel, though, because your documentary does focus so much on the murders and the difficult life in Newark that you did that, did you focused on the positive, or were you also doing what the news media does every day in Newark?

Mr. WHITAKER: Well, I mean, I was there in Newark when the cheering went up and stuff, and I understood it because there's so much beauty and hope inside of the city of Newark, New Jersey. And Cory is focusing on trying to, you know, celebrate those things but also to correct the problems that are there.

But the biggest thing for me is that I think that the documentary does and the documentarians, Marc and Mark, Marc Levine and Mark Benjamin, what they did was they show you the - I think the heroic in the ordinary people. I think you see the dignity of the people, and I don't like to define dignity and strength and beauty and what people are offering by the job titles they have, but it's more about the circumstances of how they continue to live within their lives. And I think what we get a chance to see is people who really care, and then we watch through some of these struggles, how profoundly heroic many of them are in just continuing the battle to make sure that they have the American dream to have a quality of a good life.

BRAND: Forest Whitaker, thank you very much.

Mr. WHITAKER: Sure, thanks.

BRAND: That's Forest Whitaker. He's the executive producer of a five-part documentary series called "Brick City." It's about Newark, New Jersey. It begins tonight on the Sundance Channel.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You can see clips from "Brick City" and find more coverage of what's on TV at npr.org.

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