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Street Fight: Review

By Ken Fox

Marshall Curry's sharp, Academy Award-nominated documentary about Newark city councilman Cory Booker's 2002 campaign to unseat incumbent mayor Sharpe James would be hilariously absurd if it weren't tragic: Newark is one of the most troubled cities in the U.S. and Booker's story is one of political idealism poorly matched against dirty deeds worthy of G. Gordon Liddy himself. Raised by two Civil Rights activists in Harrington Park, a well-to-do New Jersey suburb, Booker went to Stanford University on a football scholarship, attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and earned a law degree from Yale. He followed his conscience to the Brick Terrace housing project, in one of Newark's poorest wards, and ran for city council in hopes of making a difference in this beleaguered, predominantly black city. But when the 32-year-old ran for mayor in 2002, he learned the truth of an old maxim about Newark politics: Incumbents only leave office by death or conviction. James, a powerful political boss who never fails to remind his constituency of the outhouse of his dirt-poor youth, has long since moved on to a hefty six-figure salary and two vacation homes. Having somehow survived the corruption scandals of the '90s, the 66-year-old mayor is once again running for reelection on promises of "real jobs" and "real safety," even though, after 16 years of his stewardship, Newark continues to face crippling unemployment levels and a crime rate twice that of the Bronx. But defeating James is no easy undertaking: A Booker campaign trailer is broken into, supporters are intimidated into silence, and a vice raid catches his chief of staff outside Newark's only nudie bar — a club the owner claims once played host to the mayor himself. Curry's attempts to present a fair and balanced picture of this increasingly ugly race are thwarted by the James campaign: Faxes and phone calls to the mayor's office go unanswered, and Curry is repeatedly bullied at James' public appearances by security guards and by James himself, whose paranoid attitude toward the press is no surprise given that they've accurately reported incidents like James' on-the-record characterization of Booker as a "faggot white boy" with KKK backing. More troubling still, the James campaign tries to gain support by equating being black with being poor and underprivileged, while pillorying Booker — who's actively committed to the Civil Rights movement's ideals — for being educated and financially comfortable, i.e., "white." It's a fascinating film, simultaneously enthralling, infuriating and guaranteed to make viewers ask how such a perversion of the political process could be taking place in America.

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