I have always considered American politics as a game of strong-arming and intimidation, and this film has sure cemented my belief in what we like to call "democracy." Politics in the city of Newark, New Jersey, is definitely a hardball, fast pitch game, but when an old incumbent feels threatened he can and will use whatever means necessary to keep power. This story focuses on Cory Booker, a 34-year-old Rhodes Scholar from Oxford with diplomas from Stanford and Yale Law School, and his battle against long-time incumbent and only the second African American elected as Mayor of Newark, Sharpe James.
In 2002, Marshall Curry set out to make a documentary about the campaign in Newark NJ, but instead stumbled into a fierce battle. Within Street Fight’s first five minutes, Booker is canvassing an apartment building in an effort to make himself known to its residents. He is a member of the Newark City Council and believes he can do better than incumbent James. As Booker talks to the constituents, the Chief of the Housing Authority appears, letting him know that not only is being asked to leave, but the police are waiting outside to escort him if he won't. "The police" is too generic a term because rather than the expected beat cops, Booker discovers the Assistant Chief and the top Sergeant of the Newark City Police. "This is one of the harshest districts in the city. Police rarely patrol here, but I show up and they roll out the big brass. What's the deal?" Booker wonders as he gets into his car.
Next, Curry gets permission to follow the James campaign, but once they find out that he is following Booker too, he is threatened and told that he is not allowed to film the Mayor. “Threatened?” you ask. Yeah, on camera. Curry is good like that; he knows his rights and isn't easily bullied. He's also smarter than the James’ people and gets a reporter to follow the Mayor. On Election Day the reporter is on a bus full of James supporters, heading out to put "boots on the ground." Funny thing about these supporters for the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, is that they are all from Philadelphia, PA, the city of brotherly love. When these good Samaritans are asked what would bring people from a different state to do this, the number one answer was money. Half of them had no idea who Sharpe James was, and I bet the other half had no idea of where New Jersey was.
If you think that's a little messed up, how about this: both James and Booker are of African descent and registered Democrats. James proclaims at many a rally and in most Jersey newspapers that Booker was not black, wasn’t a registered Democrat, and received money from the KKK and other crackpot groups. Don't mind the issues; hammer your opponent with nonsense. When Booker holds a small town hall meeting, the people ask, "Do you really live in Newark?" "How much money did the KKK give you," and "Ain’t you a Republican?" As the camera fades to black, a little boy turns to Booker and says, "Are you White?"
Other examples of entrenched power are the abuse of city services. Those who openly support Booker are punished, such as three cops who are placed on foot patrol in some of the worst parts of town. The Newark Fire Authority gets into the act to by closing down three shops that show back Booker. Many other shopkeepers said they knew fines and closures would take place if their allegiance was known. The Federal government steps in to enforce the policy that city workers, such as the police and firemen, are not allowed to remove campaign signs until after the election. Yet the Newark Fire and Police are out removing Booker’s signs left and right, while amazingly James’ are untouched.
I believe that our political system is better than what most of the world has, but is it truly? I was totally enthralled by this film as it played out in the streets. Booker tries to get the people to listen to him by going door to door, as James intimidates and bullies. I also believe that when James first got to office he was full of ideas and hope, but once the taste of power and the thrill of using it became the norm, he, like others in that position, was willing to do anything to keep it.
Hands down, Street Fight shows you what we all hope doesn't happen in our cities. Unfortunately, this film sheds light on the dirty, underhanded dealings that a large percentage of our elected officials engage in to avoid the questions and the issues that honestly make differences in our everyday lives. If you want to learn about American politics, here's a crash course. Put on the pads because you will be bruised.
Filmmaker Marshall Curry is going to have a hard time topping this one with what he does next, and I can't wait to see whatever it may be.
Written by Fumo Verde