Note to Newark Mayor Cory Booker: If you ever decide to hire someone to serve as pitchpeople for your city, consider Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno and her husband, Jerome Bongiorno.
You wouldn’t even have to pay them.
The couple are co-directors of the documentary “Revolution ’67,” which examines the causes and effects of the Newark uprising which began July 12, 1967 and lasted six days. It will screen with an appearance by the filmmakers on Thursday, June 28, at Princeton Public Library. Also present at the screening will be Richard Cammarieri and Larry Hamm, Newark activists and community organizers. The 82-minute documentary will also be shown on PBS on Tuesday, July 10, at 10 p.m. as part of the P.O.V. (Point of View) series, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
When I ask the filmmakers what are some of the good points of New Jersey’s largest city, you can’t shut them up. “This is nice city living,” Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno says in a phone interview from her Newark home office. “You can get to New York very easily by car — just 20 minutes or so from here to any bridge, just 12 minutes by train.”
“And just think,” says Jerome Bongiorno. “You’re five minutes away from a major international airport, which is unbelievable when you’re traveling. We’ve got a beautiful cathedral here, and I love museums — we are very close to major museums in New York but here in Newark we also have my favorite museum [the Newark Museum]. And if you are a filmmaker, there is a wealth of natural locations here, and we use those extensively.”
Despite being a booster of the city, Bongiorno knows that Newark still has a litany of problems. Despite all of the good points he and his wife emphasize, he realizes that there are still other, seemingly intractable problems that are keeping the middle class from moving back into the city.
“After dark, you can’t take the train here,” he says. “People feel frightened. There are all of those factors — the quality of life, the public schools, the ability to go to a supermarket to get your groceries. Until we see marked improvement, the middle class will continue to stay in the suburbs. And we cannot confuse the reasons why the city is still like this — the existing political structure has not wanted to fix the problems.”
The 40-something Bongiornos — Marylou, who directs and scripts, and Jerome, who shoots and edits — are a couple of filmmakers who have spent their lives, at least recently, making films about Newark or planning to do so.
“Revolution ‘67” recounts the history of Newark through old photos, old footage, and on-camera interviews with social activists, policemen, National Guardsmen, historians, black and white politicians and, most importantly, regular citizens who witnessed and participated in the uprising.
The rebellions, the couple says, came as people in Newark sickened of increasing poverty and police brutality. An African American cab driver named Robert Smith was chased, stopped, and assaulted by two white Newark policemen, sparking violence and angry outbursts throughout the South Ward. Shedding light on the incident are voices as diverse as activists Tom Hayden and Amiri Baraka, journalist Bob Herbert, Mayor Sharpe James, National Guardsmen, and Newark residents.
“What did people across America have to go through to get to that point,” asks Bongiorno rhetorically. “Many cities across America suffered from the same situations. It was a recurring pattern across this country.”
Many of the middle-class people who lived in Newark, especially whites, left the city after the incidents. It was a pattern repeated across the state, especially in Camden, Plainfield, New Brunswick, and Jersey City, and across the country as civil disturbances erupted all over America’s inner cities.
Newark — and America’s cities — have yet to recover.
Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno has lived in Newark her entire life; Jerome, a native of Brooklyn who grew up on Staten Island, moved into her family’s home in the North Ward, a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood, 11 years ago when they married. Marylou’s father worked at a Newark leather factory for more than 40 years; her mother was a homemaker. The couple lives in an in-law-suite apartment in the house.
Like many children who grew up in the city during the 1970s and `80s, she was educated in private Catholic schools in the nearby suburbs, including St. Peter’s School in Belleville, and Queen of Peace in North Arlington.
Most of her family has left the city, says Tibaldo-Bongiorno. “Why did we stay? Practical reasons, family reasons, financial reasons. We are comfortable here in Newark.”
Tibaldo-Bongiorno and her husband met more than two decades ago as biology majors at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City. Both had a desire to become doctors; both ended up teaching in high school.
The couple met “cute,” to coin a term used by film critics and other cinematic types. “We met over the fetal pig in bio lab,” says Tibaldo- Bongiorno. “How cute.”
The Bongiornos did not like teaching, however, and MaryLou decided to go to New York University to study film. Jerome wanted to make movies too so while Marylou officially studied for her MFA, Jerome collaborated with her.
“Revolution ’67,” the documentary, actually grew out of research the couple was doing for a dramatic film based on 1967 Newark, says Tibaldo-Bongiorno. Her thesis film at NYU was called “1967,” and she, with her professor Spike Lee’s encouragement, decided to expand the short into a full-length dramatic movie. (The dramatic release is being helmed, i.e., executive produced, by Lee and is written and directed by the Bongiornos; It will go into production this fall.) “We made these [two] films to understand why Newark is the way it is,” says Tibaldo-Bongiorno.
As for the Newark of today, Jerome posits that economic factors are both a cause and and effect of Newark’s problems. “The money is not flowing into Newark. It is flowing out of the city into the suburbs.”
Still, Marylou says, “We are optimistic about our city.”
The election last year of Cory Booker, whose campaign spawned its own documentary, “Street Fight,” brought new hope and expectations among the people of Newark and elsewhere. But citizen Jerome Bongiorno hasn’t seen much progress, he says. “So far the numbers (in terms of economic growth and crime) have not changed. We want to see from the administration a 4 to 6-year-plan for reducing crime, for getting jobs here.”
“Revolution ’67,” Thursday, June 21, 7 p.m. Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Screening of documentary about the 1967 race riots in Newark on the 30th anniversary. 609-924-8822.