Here's an email exchange I had with Mickey Kaus at Slate.com, who mentioned Street Fight in his blog here.
Mickey- It was nice to open your blog for my afternoon read and see a mention of my film, Street Fight. Not exactly the slant I was hoping for, but as an unknown first-time filmmaker I guess any publicity is good… right?
I wasn't trying to hide the voucher issue (which I mention in my press kit and the PBS study guide)-- I simply disagree with you that discussion of vouchers belonged in the film. Here are my reasons:
1. The issue of vouchers in Newark is much more complicated than it might appear; to have dropped it in superficially would have left a false impression, and to have untangled the complexities would have warranted a film in itself. For example, Booker does not support vouchers across the board, but only for poor children in failing schools. He does not see vouchers as a silver bullet for education problems, as some proponents do; instead they are part of a larger education reform plan that includes fully funding and restructuring public schools, charter schools, etc. In addition, Sharpe James (like many Democratic urban mayors) has spoken in favor of experimentation with vouchers himself (see the Star Ledger 5-2-02 and others) so the difference between the two men is not as stark, interesting, or significant as you probably imagine. I like subtle policy debates (which is why I read your blog), but I don't think that most viewers would sit through it in a film.
2. Vouchers were not a significant issue in the campaign. Among political professionals, and outsiders like the Walton Foundation (on one side) and the Black Commentator or the teacher's union (on the other) vouchers might seem to be a crucial issue. But in spite of Sharpe James' ads on the issue, Newarkers ranked other issues much higher (crime, taxes, downtown development, housing, unemployment, etc.) Omitting vouchers from the film is less like omitting Iraq from a Bush election story, and more like omitting farm subsidies-- an issue that is extremely important to some constituents, but hardly pivotal for the whole.
3. You say that the voucher issue is the "germ of truth" in Sharpe James's accusation that Booker is a Republican, but that gives the accusation much too much credence. As the film shows (in the scene when Booker is interviewed on the radio) he received donations from some Republicans. However, calling Booker a Republican is absurd: he is pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights, pro-affirmative action, and anti-death penalty. Spike Lee, Bill Bradley, Barbara Streisand, Cornel West, Norman Lear (People for the American Way), Ben Affleck, Arianna Huffington, Steven Spielberg, and Chris Heinz have all supported him-- not exactly the right wing of the party.
4. Vouchers are definitely not the reason that "traditional Democratic party interests mobilized so vigorously against" Booker. The national Democratic Party essentially sat out the election (even Bill Clinton refused to help the mayor who had vigorously supported him for years.) And while it is true that Newark's unions and much of the state's Democratic political establishment sided with Sharpe James, any honest N.J. insider will tell you that this had much more to do with patronage and James' ability to deliver Newark's votes to state-wide officials than with his positions on vouchers or anything else. (This helps explain why, in the 2002 election, Sharpe James was supported by most of the heads of the Newark Republican party as well.)
5. You imply that the film is perhaps attempting to shill for Booker. While I like him, if it had been my goal to leave out things that might hurt his campaign, there are a lot of other scenes that would have been cut before the voucher issue: Booker fundraising in wealthy suburbs, Booker fighting with his press person who says he is going to boff his debate, Booker's election day operation falling apart under their lack of experience, the film's acknowledgement that Newark has made great strides in its downtown development under Sharpe James, etc.
I think that your criticism of the film might be missing what was intended to be one of its main points: elections-- in Newark and around the country-- are rarely decided by questions of policy. Instead, too often I think, they are decided by larger themes: youth vs. experience, insider vs. outsider, candidates' personalities, and-- in Newark's case-- racial authenticity.
All the best,
1/13/05 He updated the posting, responding to my response, and here's my response to that.
Thanks for the update and the link. I hope I won't come off as unable to take a ribbing if I point out that I didn't mean that people couldn't handle complexity. It's just a question of the medium. In a book or a blog, four paragraphs of nuance on vouchers (and why stop at vouchers?) might be fascinating, but in an 82 minute documentary designed for a wide non-expert audience, it would be pretty deadly. (I'll send you my 3 hour rough cut that is rich with policy-- and unwatchable-- if you don't believe me.)
As for the scene when Booker argues with his press aide, I have found that scene to be an interesting Rorschach test for audiences. People who like Cory (you, I'm guessing) see it as showing him firmly favoring substance over style, refusing to be handled by his handlers, etc. People who don't like him, however, read that same scene as showing a stubborn candidate (in unflattering gym shorts) who is unwilling to listen to good advice from professionals-- probably too green for the big leagues. That's the kind of filmic complexity that I really like.
All the best,
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