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By Bryan Newbury
January 9, 2007

“(E)ach candidate behaved well in the hope of being judged worthy of election. However, this system was disastrous when the city had become corrupt. For then it was not the most virtuous but the most powerful who stood for election, and the weak, even if virtuous, were too frightened to run for office.”

–Niccolo Machiavelli.
Attention filmmakers: if you desire a hit, or at least critical accolades, you could do worse than throwing a dart at a map of New Jersey and filming local elections. After seeing both Anytown, U.S.A. and Street Fight, it is hard to imagine many documentary buffs who aren’t itching for another volume to comprise a New Jersey electoral trilogy. Street Fight isn’t quite as compelling as Anytown, yet its excellence is tough to dispute.

Actually, much of Marshall Curry’s film Street Fight borders on what could best be termed “accidental excellence.” Not that Curry isn’t a gifted filmmaker with an eye for gripping political drama. Not that this feeling permeates viewing the film. It is only upon reflection that one thinks to himself, “He seems to have stumbled into it.”

In a way he has, which is not to be judgmental, because there are scores of solid documentaries whose creation and execution seem to be guided by stars. Curry came to Newark originally to set up a literacy program. Like much of Newark, Curry was once a fan of the eccentric and gifted mayor Sharpe James. As the film unfolds, the dark side of Mr. James becomes increasingly disturbing.

Street Fight is more a profile of attractive upstart Cory Booker, a 32-year-old one-term city councilman. The battle between Booker and James is unlike most in American politics. Both are African-American (unless you take the view of Mr. James, who states or implies at various times that Booker is a white Jew on the Klan payroll) and both are Democrats… unless, well, you know. In spite of those on-paper similarities, the two could scarcely be more different. Booker was raised in a suburb, went to Stanford and then to Yale Law, has a casual charm and a genuine altruism. There are a number of parallels one could draw between Booker and Barack Obama. As Curry describes on the film’s website, Booker was getting the “first black President” talk even while his political career was nascent.

James, on the other hand, is a product of the old school political machine. It could be argued that in Newark, he is the machine. James, “the poor boy from Howard Street,” has not at any time been thought of as a potential “black President.” He understands his constituency, but a broader appeal is unimaginable. His speeches are charismatic and well-suited to a pulpit. He is a wily operator, and does well in creating an air of mistrust in the community about Booker. If one chooses to support Booker anyway, James has a remedy for that as well.

In fact, James manages to cultivate a climate of fear and intimidation that causes a person to wonder whether his popularity stems from charisma or dread. In Newark, James holds all the cards, from code enforcement to criminal investigations. As we see in a number of scenes, supporting Booker isn’t an easy thing to do by any stretch of the imagination. As countless scenes of apparent malfeasance appear, it becomes natural to question how James enjoys popular support from anyone not on his payroll. Even his press officer is often incredulous. It is tempting to draw a correlation to Iraqi elections, where people have been coerced for so long their displays of enthusiasm for the winning side are well within their own interests.

Street Fight certainly maintains a point of view, which is decidedly favorable to Booker. It would be difficult to make the film any other way, as the machine behind Sharpe James endeavors to harass and intimidate Curry at every turn. These scenes are a bit nostalgic, reminding us of those long-gone days when the people in power had an adversarial relationship with the press. In today’s atmosphere of spin control, old-fashioned threats and handprints on camera lenses seem as sweet as mum’s gooseberry pie. Had James even attempted transparency, he could’ve won at least a portion of the audience over. Instead, he appears to exceed Machiavellian.

Newark’s 2002 mayoral election featured a host of welcome cameos, from Al Sharpton to Cornell West to Spike Lee. This triumvirate is fitting. Street Fight’s dominant theme becomes race as a social construct. Within the black community, the issue of race takes on a number of complex nuances. Booker is light-skinned and educated at elite schools. As one Booker supporter laments, “We tell our children to get educated, and when they do, we call them white.” His background results in outsider status, though he is obviously attuned to the African-American condition. James is dark-skinned. He is from the same neighborhood, and has been a fixture in black politics for a long time. It is easy to understand why in this election a preponderance of black voters struggle with figuring out who to trust, even though Street Fight seems to make a clear case after the fact.

Probably the best scene in the film is discordant with the theme of an election being won not by consultants or pollsters but by a door-to-door, in the street campaign. Booker is meeting in his apartment with his consultants, game-planning an upcoming debate. The consultant proffers a bit of political advice straight out of grad school conventional wisdom. In essence, she counsels him to say nothing in the most brief and articulate way possible. Booker is having none of it, and stands his ground. After the conversation, the consultant exclaims that he will “boff it” in the debate.

This rare courage and instinct, on display throughout the film, tends to build a case for bigger and better things for Booker on the national scene. From what we see in Street Fight, his presence would be very welcome. Curry demurs at the suggestion of a feature-length sequel, but should Booker maintain the trajectory he has achieved in the years between the filming of Street Fight and its release, he might not have much choice.


Written, Directed and Produced by Marshall Curry

Color, 81 minutes, 2005

Review this film for yourself.

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Candi Kirby on November 12th, 2008 at 2:03 pm 


Afifa Hossain on May 21st, 2009 at 5:31 am 


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