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Bare-knuckle politics in 'Street Fight' the sad story of Newark's 2002 election

By Steven Rea
March 3, 2006

Although the turf is the alternately blighted and rebounding cityscape of Newark, N.J., Street Fight says a lot about politics, and race, nationwide.

A compelling and occasionally mind-boggling chronicle of the 2002 mayoral election in New Jersey's largest city, Marshall Curry's Oscar-nominated documentary follows an idealistic newcomer as he strives to unseat the four-term incumbent and a daunting political machine.

Cory Booker, a Stanford University football star, Rhodes scholar, and Yale Law School graduate, was 32 when he launched his run against Sharpe James, an old-school Newark politician who came up from the streets, but who now owned a Rolls-Royce, two houses and a yacht.

Both men are black, but that didn't stop James from making race an issue: In interviews, the mayor suggested that the lighter-skinned Booker had white ancestry. The James campaign alleged that Booker was backed by the KKK and various Republican groups. When a Booker staffer is spotted by the mayor, James tells his police entourage to hold the guy. He looks "like a terrorist," the mayor asserts.

Street Fight makes even Philadelphia politics look clean by comparison. (And Philadelphians played a role in James' campaign: A bus of James "supporters" wheels in from the City of Brotherly Love to get out the vote. Wearing James caps and T-shirts, the Philly visitors indicate they are in Newark because, quite simply, they were paid.)

Newark Fire Department crews - in uniform, using city hook-and-ladders - are caught on video removing Booker campaign banners and billboards. Homeowners and businesspeople hosting Booker fund-raisers find themselves being visited by housing inspectors and even the police.

Curry follows Booker - who lives in one of the city's high-rise projects - as he walks the streets, meeting, greeting, spreading the word. The filmmaker's repeated efforts to interview James, or even just record his tours of a Portuguese neighborhood or a bingo barbecue, are met by plainclothes cops warning him to turn his camera off.

In 1940's The Great McGinty, Preston Sturges told a great, satiric comic tale of hardscrabble city politics - the story of crooked aldermen, government shakedowns, voter fraud. Sixty-some years later, Street Fight tells a scarily similar story, only the people are real, and the laughs are few and far between.

Whether or not Street Fight wins the Academy Award Sunday night, Curry's picture is must-see fare for any and every observer of the curious world of American politics.

Street Fight *** 1/2 (out of four stars)

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