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A rough-and-ready look at rough-and-tumble politics

By Sam Allis
March 3, 2006

Properly told, political underdog stories are as compelling as pratfalls from banana peels are funny. Each is timeless and carries an integrity impervious to cynicism.

''Street Fight," which has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature, is a classic tale that pits a bright young reformer against a city machine. For starters, it's real. There's no need for Robert Redford here. We've got Cory Booker, a dazzling product of Stanford and Yale Law School and a Rhodes Scholar to boot, who runs for mayor of Newark in 2002 against the 16-year incumbent and old-fashioned political boss, Sharpe James.

Booker, 32, is a photogenic, light-skinned black man challenging an older, dark-skinned black man. As the contest tightens, race, of all things, emerges as an issue, and we end up with a marquee political fight that attracts national attention.

The documentary is simple and strong and small. Its grit lifts it above its mechanical shortcomings, which are manifest. Marshall Curry, who wrote, produced, filmed, and directed ''Street Fight," made it on a shoestring and moxie. It is his first feature-length documentary and it shows. His camera work is primitive and the film has its dead spots. But these are minor problems in a story too good to ignore.

The campaign, as the title denotes, will be determined in the streets of Newark, where strong-arm tactics prevail. As Booker's name recognition rises, so too does the level of intimidation from the Sharpe camp. Uniformed police remove Booker signs, while other signs are defaced. A Booker campaign office is burglarized.

Curry tries to follow Sharpe but is viewed by that camp, not entirely without merit, as a Booker guy. Plainclothes police crudely block Curry from filming Sharpe at public rallies, and he is later prevented from bringing his camera into the important debate between Booker and Sharpe in the final days of the fight. So Curry follows Booker as he knocks on doors and confronts the numbing demands of retail politics.

Sharpe, a formidable campaigner, is the savvy survivor of multiple scandals during the '90s who has also presided over a renaissance of sorts in Newark. New office buildings have sprouted up, and developers line up behind him. But Curry captures the other reality as well in a city that still posts appalling statistics in poverty, school dropout rates, and crime.

Both men are Democrats, but this doesn't stop Sharpe from calling Booker a Republican and denigrating him as a fake black man because of his comfortable suburban upbringing. Sharpe gets endorsements from the usual suspects -- Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson -- while Booker gets the nod from former senator Bill Bradley and Cornell West.

It is no secret that Booker lost the race after scaring the daylights out of Sharpe. Booker is running again this year. Sharpe has not decided yet. The thing about a political underdog story is the good guy eventually wins.

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