Notes on the cinematic career of Rutgers University, Newark

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These images come from The Once and Future Newark, a short 2006 documentary produced at Rutgers University, Newark, and featuring Dr. Clement Price leading an historical tour of the city. I can’t even feign critical distance here, so I won’t try; in addition to being the official city historian of Newark, Clem is a friend and valued colleague (a telling story: when I arrived at Penn Station for my on-campus interview, he picked me up in his car, bought me coffee, and burned me a DVD of a local documentary! This was a guy who was appointed by President Obama repeatedly to serve on important historical committees, going out of his way for someone he might never even see again! Seriously, an inspiration). He’s been in Newark since 1968, and knows more about its history than anyone alive.

“I can’t think of a better place for a city,” Professor Price declares, and damned if he doesn’t make a convincing argument over the course of 26 really enjoyable and informative minutes. Obviously, The Once and Future Newark is by design a booster video, yet Price gently applies a necessary critical lens to the story; “race matters in America, and race matters in Newark,” he explains. Thus we hear about the segregated history of baseball in Newark, but also celebrate the Newark Eagles, 1940s Negro League Champions. We get histories of Penn Station, the Newark Museum, the Ironbound, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), and more. I even learned something about my own university: our Paul Robeson Center was the first academic building named after the great dissident performer! Take that, other Robeson buildings (j/k, any building named after Paul Robeson is awesome. Ours is just more awesome).

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So, if I sound like a booster myself here, that’s partly because I’m incredibly fortunate to be at a university whose mission I genuinely support (upward mobility is mostly fiction in American history, but as a university committed to first-generation college students, RU-N does act as a conduit rather than a factory for the replication of already-existing social privilege; this is not, of course, to suggest that it is wholly immune from the tragic neoliberal gutting of the public university that has led—with some undeniable faculty complicity, by the way—to such travesties as the overreliance on adjunct labor, but rather to say that within the current realpolitik of the public university, RU-N is, IMHO, very impressive. I’m not neutral here, of course). But it’s also because Clement Price is such a charming and informative narrator and host. Look, the film was nominated for an Emmy and won some other awards, and you can watch the whole thing on YouTube. It’s got great images of past and then-present Newark, and I highly recommend it.

The Once and Future Newark raised the question: what about other films shot on campus in Newark? Well, here’s one obscurity, found on burned DVD in the Rutgers Library: Rutgers From the Inside, an utterly turgid 1966 short 16mm documentary. If the bleeding-red images look bad, well, we must simply deal with it, because this is the only copy I know of and I don’t think Criterion is likely to restore it soon.

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In this “view of the contemporary state university,” we mostly get white people in New Brunswick, doing old-school things like lecturing, using chalkboards, and dressing in suits and ties as undergrads. I like to imagine this is how my students see me…

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…though more likely it’s

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Rutgers From the Inside finally ventures to Newark for a brief segment, mostly to follow a white sociologist into “the ghetto.” It’s a bit cringe-inducing to witness the deeply problematic anthropological approach of the university to the “others” of the city—poor black people in public housing. I am reminded of something my colleague Steve Diner (former chancellor at RU-Newark) wrote about the history of urban universities—by the 1970s many had created “urban observatories,” a well-intended but unfortunate astronomical trope that emphasized the huge gap between campus and city. That said, visually there is a stark autumnal beauty to this scene even despite the horrid visual quality:

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I’d like to think we’ve moved beyond that framework, and indeed, in the new strategic plan that our new chancellor, Nancy Cantor, unveiled this week, civic engagement is highlighted as a central mission of the university. Now, civic engagement itself has a complicated genealogy, as Mary Rizzo recently suggested in a great essay that links it to the fallout of the culture wars, yet the projects underway now are striving to be substantively community-driven. The Queer Newark Oral History Project (with which I am involved) is collaborating on a bang-up series of on- and off-campus events throughout the month of October, and the incredible Newest Americans project looks slated to produce some exciting film work, among other media.

But the cinematic career of Rutgers University, Newark doesn’t quite end there. Hollywood has also come calling, at least once. Movies shot on college campuses are almost always bad, and frankly annoying to experience; as a grad student at UCLA, it seemed like a regular occurrence to encounter Vince Vaughn jaunting around campus on a golf cart and impeding your walk to class in the name of some irksome frat-bro comedy. But hey, considering how unbearably awful Ed Norton’s campus comedy Leaves of Grass is, at least the scenes in his Matt Damon gambling buddy movie Rounders (shot at the former Rutgers Law School building in 1998) rank relatively high in his campus filmography. The Newark footage is brief, but kinda neat, I guess:

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Okay, so they scrubbed it to become the generic City Law University, and diegetically, I think it’s set in New York (I even listened to the commentary track, but alas, the only insight it offered was that Ed Norton can be kind of a sexist prick), but hey, movies lie. It’s what they do. Also the Malkovich scenes have nothing to do with Newark, but just seeing him ham it up as a Russian gambler makes me laugh, so why not throw it in?

So, I think that might be it for the cinematic career of Rutgers-Newark, though I’d remiss if I failed to mention this recent music video by spirited undergrads, which I defy you to watch without smiling.

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dance routine outside the building where my office is!

FUN FACTS THAT I FORGOT TO MENTION AND AM TOO LAZY TO INTEGRATE IN:

  1. the original site of Dana Library was the Ballantine beer brewery—from which Harold Wechsler drew the title of his scholarly history of the university, “Brewing Bachelors” (seriously, props for that).
  1. when Frank Kingdon was heading the University of Newark (before its merger with Rutgers) in the 1930s, he supported Norman Thomas as Socialist Party candidate for president! That is somewhat unthinkable today. (also from Wechsler).
  1. If you can’t spot the sucker at the first half hour at the table, you are the sucker (words of wisdom from Matt Damon in Rounders).
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