Cory Booker is a 32-year-old Yale Law grad, Rhodes scholar, college football star and hopeful future Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey, a city with one of the highest poverty and crime rates in America. Booker’s opponent is Mayor Sharpe James, a consummate politician who has dominated the last twenty years of Newark politics. Booker takes great lengths to know his constituency. He meets and debates with hundreds of citizens in Newark’s poorest neighborhoods daily. He lives modestly in Brick Towers, a housing project without heat or hot water. Booker isn’t merely an antithetical American politician, he’s a veritable progressive saint; and like all saints, he is destined to suffer immensely for his cause.
This is the setting of “Street Fight,” first-time filmmaker Marshall Curry’s penetrating insight into the 2002 Newark mayoral race. Curry’s production is truly a labor of love, personally financed and created after months of grueling filming in Newark. Lucky for him, it pays off. Curry’s outsider status, countless interviews and passion have produced what is easily one of the finest political documentaries of the last decade, eschewing the excesses of the polemic, overproduced, preach-to-the-pulpit documentaries that have flooded theaters since Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.”
Tracing Booker’s campaign from its beginning to end, “Street Fight” displays all of the fundraising, debating and baby kissing that constitutes any election. While Booker’s people fight for exposure and donations, meeting poor citizens one by one, James moves from block party to block party, celebrating an endless succession of new development projects with his followers. The Booker campaign’s attempts to take the moral high road are endlessly assaulted: their buildings are vandalized, their computers are stolen and the local police break up their meetings. Even Newark citizens who post signs for Booker are personally harassed by law enforcement – their personal accounts showing that political strong-arm tactics still flourish in modern politics. The race takes its most ludicrous turn when James slanders Booker for being a white Republican and a Jew – both politicians are black, as are the majority of the poor Americans they represent. Widely ignored issues of race in education, poverty and politics simmer beneath the film.
“Street Fight” was produced on what can only be termed a shoestring budget. The cost limitations are most evident in the film’s editing. This being Curry’s first film, it is immensely successful at being both entertaining and enlightening. The strengths of the issues raised and people presented easily carry the film from start to finish. The film’s biggest flaw is not its capably handled budget, but its narrative; Curry’s insistence on involving himself in the action is unnecessary and obnoxious, and the only points where the film lags are no less than three extended scenes where James’ men try to stop Curry from filming, replete with people grabbing the camera lens and Curry’s odiously self-important protestations.
As a documentary, the film is unquestionably biased. But then, what modern political documentaries aren’t? Its greatest strength lies in its close observation of the American political process in all areas of its local form: for all the supposed transparency of our government, elections remain such an inscrutable process. Most striking are the workings of the political machine in action – to find the abuses of the American voting system so boldly and ruthlessly enforced is a sobering and maddening experience to anyone with a lingering belief in Constitutional rights. “Street Fight” should be required viewing for any American; it is a vivid reminder that perhaps we should always be vigilant of our political system, a message even more important today as we forcefully export it across the world.
“Street Fight” will be screened this Saturday, May 20, at 3 p.m. in the Victoria Hall Theatre as part of the 2006 Human Rights Watch Traveling Film Festival.