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Street Fight

By Meghann Matwichuk
May 16, 2006

Street Fight chronicles the four months leading up to the contentious 2002 Newark, New Jersey mayoral election between Cory Booker, a 32 year-old idealistic newcomer and Sharpe James, a career politician and longtime incumbent. Filmmaker Marshall Curry attempts to present a behind-the-scenes look at both sides of the campaign, but is repeatedly rebuffed and even manhandled by James's security staff and members of the Newark police force. It quickly becomes apparent that this paranoia and misuse of authority is indicative of larger problems in the Sharpe James administration. Throughout the film, Curry presents evidence of abuse and intimidation on behalf of the James campaign. As the dynamic of this campaign emerges, viewers sense how much is truly at stake and what this David-and-Goliath struggle means for the larger picture of politics in urban America.

Skillful editing combines footage of Booker canvassing the depressed neighborhoods he hopes to represent, campaign appearances by both candidates, and interviews with community members with differing opinions about who can best provide Newark with the leadership it needs to escape its crushing poverty. Curry constructs a portrait of a unique and complicated political landscape in a way that conveys both the importance and the intensity of political engagement. It also examines a troubling dynamic that has been echoed in other elections across the country in recent years: African-American politicians who must contend with differing viewpoints concerning racial identity and accusations that they are not "black enough" -- one of James's fundamental points of attack. This is expressed in an ugly mixture of anti-Semitism, homophobia, and reverse classism. He accuses the Ivy-league educated Booker of attempting to buy the election by distorting fundraising numbers and casts dispersions on his allegiance to the Democratic party (of which they are both a member) and to the community as well. Scholar Cornell West appears briefly in the film, positing that this election will determine the future of black leadership in America. Curry expertly conveys the stakes at hand -- his film crystallizes how such tactics cripple the discourse needed to address issues that affect too many African American communities, such as poverty and corruption.

Booker struggles to sustain his dignity and good humor in the face of James’s blatant hypocrisy. He mounts his campaign amidst the community’s rampant suspicion and distrust of their elected leadership. At a tenant’s meeting, a disaffected woman expresses her frustration with the inaction and broken promises she associates with all politicians. When called upon to cite something questionable associated with Booker’s tenure as city councilman, she struggles. Unable to think of a specific initiative, she calls into question whether or not Booker truly lives in the ward he represents. Incredulous, he invites the roomful of tenants to come and see the dirty dishes cluttering his kitchen sink just floors away. The next question, from a young boy, is heartbreaking in the face of Booker’s earnest appeal: “Are you lying?” Curry juxtaposes this scene with another towards the end of the film. A young girl, thrilled that she’s just met Booker as he canvasses the streets, bounces up to the camera: “If you don’t believe me, smell my hands.” Bemused, Curry asks what Booker smells like. “He smells like the future,” she swoons. This tiny kernel of hope embodies the optimism that is the overarching theme of both Booker’s campaign and Curry's film. This tempers even the most infuriating portions of the film portraying James’ tactics and police collusion; although Curry presents many things that are wrong with the corrupt leadership in Newark, he never loses focus of the hope that many of its residents have for their community.

This riveting film would be appropriate in any library collection. Street Fight offers dramatic tension that parallels even the best feature films about political intrigue, and as such would make a great addition to public libraries and curriculum-based collections alike. It would provide an engaging centerpiece for discussions concerning race issues, politics, and community development.

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