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Fightin' Dirty: Race and Politics in Street Fight

By Alison Hallett
October 6, 2005

Street Fight is a must-see documentary for anyone with even a passing interest in American politics. Following the 2002 mayoral elections in Newark, New Jersey, in which the young reformer Cory Booker ran against beloved incumbent Sharpe James, the film is a compelling, frustrating look at city politics and the increasingly complicated role of race in government.

Newark could be viewed as an economic microcosm of the U.S.—it's a city with high poverty and crime rates and poor public schools, yet it also has an upper class that's safely ensconced at their own end of town. Newark's mayoral candidates base their campaigns on issues of race and class, but in radically different ways: Booker argues that a change in administration is needed to deal with crime and poverty, while James runs a campaign that emphasizes Booker's lighter skin and privileged background—even going so far as to call him a "white Republican," despite the fact that both men are black Democrats.

Booker, an intelligent, articulate politician in his own right, comes across as the scrappy underdog whose honest, door-to-door approach is squelched at every turn by James' political influence and connections. Frankly, this impression is encouraged by the full access allowed to the film's director, Marshall Curry, by the Booker campaign with the tight-lipped, anti-press attitudes of the James campaign. (In fact, Curry initially intended to devote equal time to both candidates—but after being repeatedly kicked out James' public events, the focus of the film veered from an unbiased look at an important election toward an expose of James' injustices.) Curry also includes footage of corrupt police officers selectively destroying Booker ads and intimidating local businesses that support Booker. ThroughoutStreet Fight, it's fascinating to watch the drama unfold—and though the outcome is disappointing, Booker emerges as an inspiring icon, providing a ray of hope in an often muddled and bleak political landscape.

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