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Playing racial politics in Newark, N.J.

By Kevin Crust
February 24, 2006

A refreshing shift from the red state-blue state paradigm that has marked most U.S. political documentaries since 2000, Marshall Curry's sharp-eyed, Oscar-nominated "Street Fight" maps the no-holds-barred battle between two African American Democrats for the mayoralty of Newark, N.J., in 2002.

The election pitted Cory Booker, a 32-year-old former Stanford football player, Rhodes scholar and Yale law grad against four-term incumbent Sharpe James. What made the campaign different from most in the media-savvy infotainment age was that rather than being fought on TV and in sound bytes, the candidates had to take their clash into the community.

That's not to say the media didn't play a role. Numerous scandals and accusations played out in the local press and later, as the fight heated up, the national media took notice. But foremost, Booker and James pounded the pavement and attended local events to get out their messages.

Curry for the most part bypasses the content of those messages in favor of documenting the alarming strong-arm tactics used by the mayor to suppress his challenger. In its dramatic depiction of the bleak state of the American ideal in a New Jersey city, "Street Fight" could be a nonfiction sequel to John Sayles' 1991 film "City of Hope."

Shut out by the James campaign, Curry's attempt to document the contest from both sides quickly evolved into a tense, invigorating chronicle of underdog Booker's uphill crusade against the old school political machine. When Booker attempts to go door-to-door in a city housing project, the police are called in to escort him from the premises. Businesses that support Booker are shut down for minor code violations or threatened with the loss of municipal contracts. City workers are filmed tearing down Booker campaign signs.

As Booker became a more serious threat to James, there were break-ins, shakedowns and a scandal involving the challenger's chief-of-staff being picked up in a strip club raid, all of which lend the film the intrigue of a political thriller. The real dirty tricks, however, came as the campaign headed into the home stretch and James accused Booker of being a "white Republican" and possibly (gasp!) Jewish.

Portraying Booker as a carpetbagger whose light skin and education somehow made him less black, James ratcheted up the election's stakes, drawing national attention to what was clearly no longer just a local story.

As election day drew near, celebrities lined up to support the candidates: Cornel West and Spike Lee for Booker, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for James. Up for grabs was an endorsement for the future political direction of African Americans.

The story that first-time feature filmmaker Curry tells is extremely compelling, but where he really scores is in addressing politics and race in a way that allows events to speak for themselves.

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