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All politics is local -- and brutal, too

By Neva Chonin
March 3, 2006

It isn't news when a sucker-punching brawl erupts in Newark, N.J. But when the battle happens to be the city's 2002 mayoral race, and the combatants are the two opposing candidates -- well, now you're talking. Such is the scuffle recorded in "Street Fight," Marshall Curry's mean, lean documentary that's earned the first-time filmmaker a deserved Academy Award nomination.

Both candidates are African American, and both are Democrats. So much for similarities. In one corner is young Cory Booker, an idealistic Stanford and Yale Law School graduate determined to better the lives of Newark's poorest citizens. In the other, incumbent Mayor Sharpe James, a wily career politician who scrambled up from poverty to become the city's de facto dictator, plagued by corruption scandals but beloved by the same impoverished voters Booker hopes to reach.

Curry takes a linear path with his film, following Booker's campaign from its hopeful beginning to its bruising close. Along the way, it documents how the politics of race come to eclipse economic and social issues. Specifically, it's about James' charge that Booker, light-skinned and erudite, just isn't "black" enough. In a series of increasingly bizarre assertions, he accuses his opponent of being white, Jewish, Republican and probably gay.

James' tactics aren't limited to black-on-black racism. Police are caught on camera preventing Booker from campaigning in Newark's housing projects. Booker's office is ransacked, campaign posters are destroyed, and pro-Booker businesses begin losing city contracts. Curry captures it all while being periodically assaulted by the mayor's hired goons. His is the stance of a classic documentarian who eschews editorial comment and simply lets the action speak for itself. Considering how loudly James' actions roar, he made a good call.

"Street Fight" is a cultural snapshot, capturing of a climate in which competition has become thuggery, calumny has replaced debate and realpolitik has degenerated into reality politics. Sadly, it also captures how eagerly an uninformed public gobbles up the theatrics like the latest installment of "Survivor: Newark." It should be required viewing before every election.

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