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The SYdney Morning Herald

Hot Docs: Street Fight

By Annmaree Bellman
May 12, 2007

In the New Jersey city of Newark, mayoral electioneering isn't about sound bites and pamphlets. It's an old-fashioned, low-tech, street-level scrap: doors knocked upon, hands clasped, food and presents dispensed. (John So oven mitt, anyone?) 

It was the 2002 electoral skirmish that sparked Marshall Curry's interest: an idealistic young lion was taking on a wily 16-year incumbent; both were black, both were Democrat, but in every other way they couldn't have been more different. 

Cory Booker was a 32-year-old lawyer, a champion athlete and Rhodes scholar. Sharpe James was running for a fifth consecutive term. A New Jersey icon, he had rejuvenated downtown Newark, but was also paying himself more than most state governors earned. 

Corruption scandals walloped his administration in the 1990s but James survived. Curry bought a camera and started to document the campaign. What followed turned out not just stranger than fiction, but infinitely more compelling. 

Curry's resulting feature-length documentary has to be one of the best political films - of any kind - of recent years. (It was beaten to an Academy Award by March of the Penguins.) Booker allowed Curry to film him, but James not only refused to co-operate, but ordered police to remove Curry from public events. 

The subsequent abuses of power and dirty tricks - including playing the race card - have to be seen to be believed. Curry makes a clear-eyed attempt to examine James' popularity and probe the psyche of Newark voters - can Booker really beat a political machine that crushes its opponents without thought? Watch and see - then Google the result.

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