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'Street Fight' captures politics Newark-style

By Matt Zoller Seitz
July 5, 2005

I'LL BET that when filmmaker Marshall Curry shot "Street Fight," an account of the 2002 Newark mayoral race, he didn't know he was making two different movies at once: a documentary and a horror movie.

People who didn't follow the mayor's race will view it as engrossing nonfiction - a grimly funny account of bloody-knuckled democracy, pitting first-term city councilman Cory Booker against the incumbent machine of longtime mayor Sharpe James.

Those who know how the race turned out will likely see "Street Fight" as the political version of a slasher picture, the kind where you find yourself hollering at the screen, "Don't go in there!" and "Look behind you!"

The horror film's sense of dread starts gathering in the very first scene, when Booker trolls an apartment complex for votes. He's an energetic outsider who's convinced his charisma and energy can change the system overnight.

But after shaking a few hands, building management orders him out. When he tells them he has the legal right to campaign there and they can call the cops if they don't like it, they do call the cops - and a high ranking police official shows up to make sure Booker leaves the premises.

"Is this the kind of security they get every night here?" Booker says, trying to keep his dignity with a wisecrack. But the joke's on him. This is James' town; Booker is just visiting.

Director-editor-narrator Curry quotes a political maxim I remember hearing from a city hall reporter when I first came to The Star-Ledger 10 years ago: The only way an incumbent ever leaves office in Newark is death or conviction. Then he illustrates it, day by day and battle by battle, demonstrating that in politics, power accrues to those who already have it.

As documented in this newspaper and elsewhere, James used the influence he'd built up during three decades in government to thwart Booker at every turn.

As soon as business owners put up signs backing Booker, they were visited by city inspectors and cited for code violations. Booker campaign signs kept disappearing, allegedly with James' okay. Curry's camera spots a city worker mounting a cherry-picker to rip a Booker sign from a telephone pole on election day, after federal election monitors ordered city employees to cease the practice.

Booker's campaign complained that this sort of behavior was unsporting, unethical and illegal. But while their objections were reasonable, they were also naive. As the movie's title suggests, street fights don't observe Marquess of Queensberry rules.

It makes sense that Curry would position Booker as the underdog, because by any objective measure, he was the underdog - a first-term city councilman, raised in Harrington Park and educated at Stanford, Oxford and Yale, whose political and fundraising connections were dwarfed by the mayor's.

James cemented his status as the bad guy (in Curry's eyes, at least) by treating the filmmaker as an enemy propagandist.

Curry repeatedly asked to interview James and follow him as he campaigned, but his requests were ignored. And when he tried to videotape James at public campaign events, the mayor's security detail verbally and physically intimidated Curry and unsuccessfully tried to confiscate his videocassettes. (In these confrontations, all of which are caught on tape, the security guards' bullying is all the more chilling for being so matter-of-fact.)

But even as "Street Fight" portrays James as a tinpot dictator, it acknowledges that he didn't just win the race because he was stronger and meaner than Booker. Frankly, he was smarter, too - a seasoned old master of political jujitsu, adept at turning his opponent's strengths against him.

Booker sold himself as a fresh-faced outsider, untainted by corruption scandals that had plagued James, and pointed out that for all of Newark's progress, its schools, infrastructure and crime-fighting still needed work.

James countered by painting Booker as a political amateur who didn't appreciate all the work that had been done to improve Newark, and favorably contrasted his own poor upbringing with Booker's middle-class roots. And he suggested that by criticizing James' administration, Booker was insulting the city and its people.

"We don't need any carpetbaggers coming in and telling us how bad we are," James says during a stump speech. A James supporter parrots the Booker-as-dilettante talking points, exclaiming, "We don't need nobody practicing on Newark."

At various points, James successfully tarred Booker with political smears so old that they could be carbon-dated - and they worked brilliantly. During the final weeks of the campaign, Booker was forced to waste time and energy refuting charges that he was gay, Jewish and a secret tool of right wing Republicans (which presumably explained Booker's surprisingly strong fundraising).

Booker's difficulty at getting his message out wasn't just figurative. On election day, "Street Fight" shows Booker at a campaign rally, standing in mute frustration as a Sharpe James sound truck drowns him out.

As ugly as things get, it's hard not to feel a certain grim admiration for James. There's a reason why people call him mayor for life: This is the only life he knows, and he's willing to do everything in his power to preserve it.

After the election, Booker reassures crushed supporters that his campaign "slipped the small end of a larger wedge into this political machine." That rumbling you hear in the background is the sound of the machine still running.

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