BIG THUMBS UP DOCUMENTARY REVIEW RATING!
Most politically charged films focus on corruption at the higher levels of state, but STREET FIGHT gives us a curb-side view of something much smaller ...and much more important.
The 2002 Newark, New Jersey Mayoral race is something most voters in the U.S. could care less about. Why should someone in, say, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania pay attention to Newark’s voting issues? Or someone in Fort Worth, Texas? Or San Francisco, California? Realistically, none of them would. But Newark is New Jersey’s most populated city, and those in San Francisco and beyond might want to take a peak at what’s happening to our democracy on a pseudo-microcosmic level.
The documentary’s primary focus is on Cory Booker, a Newark city councilman with his eye on the mayor’s office. He’s a Stanford and Yale graduate who lives in a slum within Newark. He’s an idealist who’s grown tired of his city’s poor schools, poorer neighborhoods, and rising jobless rate. To get into the mayor’s office, though, he’ll have to unseat four-time incumbent Sharpe James, a man who’s firmly entrenched within Newark’s politics.
We watch as writer/director/photographer Marshall Curry seeks to interview both sides of the race, first by checking in on Cory Booker’s campaign, then by trying (in vain) to meet up with Sharpe James and his people. But once James’ campaign personnel learn that Curry interviewed Booker already, he is immediately shunned and pushed aside (often in a very rough manner). Curry’s camera is pushed around time and again, his microphone broken, and he’s denied access to Sharpe James entirely. Even when Curry catches up with James at a public event, he’s manhandled by Sharpe James’ ‘brute squad.’ Most will find this very unsettling, as this is a publicly elected figure in a public place who is, in essence, acting like a thug.
That we never touch on the political issues surrounding the campaign is interesting and absurd. These are both positive aspects of the film. It shows us how little our democracy means in many instances; it isn’t the poor schools/neighborhoods/jobs that dominate voters’ discussions, but who’s "more republican" or "more black" (both candidates are black) or "campaign has more money" or "has visited a strip joint".
In the end, we watch Sharpe James use every slimy tactic at his disposal in order to win votes (including bringing in paid James’ supporters from out-of-state to help bolster support on election day). Booker doesn’t win the election, thus giving the viewer a very negative view of New Jersey politics. But all is not gloom and doom.
In 2006, Cory Booker returned to the mayoral race and took Newark by storm. Sharpe James uncharacteristically dropped from the race for unknown reasons while a new runner took up position against Booker, only to be squashed in the largest landslide win of any mayoral race in New Jersey history.
But the bitter taste of the 2002 race still lingers in audiences minds after watching Street Fight. It’s a tough film to watch, because we all want to believe that our democracy is flawless when, in fact, it has so many problems and shady dealings as to make one ill at the prospect.