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Street Fight (2005)


It’s tempting to view politics as little more than a grudge match, an untelegenic blood match between a number of well-dressed liars who should be judged not for the substance of their statements, but rather the artifice with which they conceal their true intentions. That was certainly the manner in which the local and national media seemed to treat the 2002 Newark mayoral campaign, an unusually rough-and-tumble fight between a hard-headed incumbent and an idealistic upstart. Even though the outcome couldn’t have been more crucial – given the city’s desperate poverty and steadily rising crime rate – it was treated more humorously than anything else, the writers almost seeming to pine for the more colorful days of machine politics that the election harkened back to. But, as Street Fight – Marshall Curry’s punchy, entertaining, Oscar-nominated documentary of the election – shows, that kind of corrosive cynicism ends up favoring the entrenched powers that be, no matter what dirt they may sling.

Going into the election, it looks a pretty easy choice. The incumbent, Sharpe James, had been mayor of Newark since 1986 and seems your typical city hall dinosaur. Lazy from a lack of competition and fattened off a suspiciously hefty salary (further boosted, many had it, by the endemic corruption James had narrowly escaped being jailed for in the ’90s), James should have been a cinch for his challenger, Cory Booker, to take out. Booker is a choirboy type from the suburbs, a Rhodes scholar and college football star who went straight from Stanford to Yale Law School to Newark, where he moved into a housing project and set up a nonprofit organization before taking on James. He’s tall, broad of shoulder, quick of wit, and self-assured without seeming pompous; in short, a campaign manager’s dream. New vs. old, crusading vs. corrupt, the choice seems clear. As Curry ably shows, though, in places like Newark, the old guard hasn’t stayed in power so long by playing nice.

The film starts with Booker walking the hallways of a Newark project trying to get out the vote. It isn’t long before the word gets out and the city’s deputy chief of police shows up to not-so-politely tell him to get out of there. It’s iron-fisted city politics of the oldest and ugliest kind, straight from the Tammany Hall or Daley machine playbook, and just a taste of what waits for Booker and his supporters down the line. It’s quickly apparent that James has little of substance to beat Booker with. Sure, the last few years had seen some nice new buildings going up in downtown, but overall Newark was a hollow place going from bad to worse, with most of the windfall from the new developments going to rich outsiders or those with City Hall connections. James can’t play the partisan card, since both he and Booker are Democrats, and one would imagine that he can’t play the race card, since they’re both black. Therefore, James plays the ‘not black enough’ card.

Before the election is over, James and his race-baiting campaign will have accused the liberal, lighter-skinned Booker of being the following: a Republican, white, Jewish, a ‘faggot,’ a ‘carpetbagger,’ and beholden to right-wing extremists including (but not limited to) the KKK. James also doesn’t mind using city police and firemen to harass Booker’s supporters (businesses showing Booker signs are routinely harassed and threatened with various citations) and even the filmmaker (Curry almost loses his camera to James’ plainclothes thugs on a few occasions). By the time the whole sad charade is over, about the only thing James can legitimately say about himself is that he was born and raised in Newark.

One criticism of Street Fight could be that it’s such an unabashedly worshipful portrait of Booker. However, given James’ spurning of Curry’s attempts to give him equal time, not to mention the election’s indisputably ugly facts, it’s difficult to imagine how any documentarian with an ounce of honesty could have presented us with anything different. Street Fight is an amazing work, thrilling and informative in equal amounts, reminding us that democracy isn’t just fought over on message boards and foreign battlegrounds, but also on our very streets. Right here.

The DVD includes an update for 2006 and an interview with Curry.