Street Fight

March, 2006, Documentary

Directed by:Marshall Curry



Former House Speaker Tip O'Neil's oft-quoted observation that "All politics is local" finds vivid confirmation in this examination of the 2002 mayoral election in Newark New Jersey. Shot with a hand-held camera by first time documentarian Marshall Curry and edited on a Mac computer, Street Fight has the raw look and feel of New Jersey's biggest--and saddest--city. It just doesn't get much more real than this.

When freshman city councilman Cory Booker decided to challenge 4-term mayor Sharpe James for latter's job 4 years ago, the contest had the look of a race set up by central casting; crafty man of the streets and long time black city pol vs. charismatic young African American overachiever, looking, sounding and dressing like the political version of Sidney Poitier. Booker's background, (prep school, Stanford football star and Yale Law) would seem preposterous overkill were it not true; clean cut, articulate and willing to live in one of the prison-like projects in the heart of the district he served in government, Booker manages to be both articulate and photogenic, two winning attributes in any electoral contest. But James hadn't survived in the trenches of Newark's bare-knuckle style of city government by being soft--his blend of Babbitt-style booster-ism, combined with 16 years of base-building and a willingness to be as ruthless as a Mafia don made Booker’s challenge quite a hill to climb.

By sheer determination and hard work, Booker and his small but dedicated staff spent 8 long months coming from a position of "no chance" to "dead heat" by election-day. Along the way, he and his supporters found themselves harassed by city police and fireman controlled by Mayor James, who also squeezed local businessmen with city contracts to support his 5th try for mayor. Most importantly, the camera catches James lying, time and again, with such effortless effectiveness that it simply takes the audience's breath away. Talk about political chutzpah! In a city stuffed with low-income, poorly educated citizens frightened by street crime, lousy schools and endemic joblessness, James' insistence that the business district's resurgence, (funded by white real estate developers essentially for commuters) heralds a new day for the city with which everyone should be satisfied is downright silly. The tradgey comes when it becomes apparent that his hogwash is taken with such vehement, emotional seriousness by so many of those eligible to vote.

In the end, James survived his first real test as an incumbent, but Booker shines as that rarity in American politics; someone willing to pick up the pieces after a loss in a close race and start all over again. 

The technical craftsmanship here is exemplary and the director has the good sense to focus his primary attention on this enormously attractive challenger, allowing the mayor's nose to grow ridiculously long as he struggles to hold on to his political domain. No one will come away from this one cheering for the status quo. 

James was 66 years old in 2002; if he runs again this year at 70, he'd better follow Satchel Paige's advice and not look over his shoulder--someone will surely be gaining on him. Here's hoping an equally informative and inspiring sequel will be made honoring Booker's successful attempt to put the old goat out to pasture.

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