Politics can be an ugly beast. While national elections have grabbed headlines lately local elections have wasted no time matching them for spitefulness. The 2002 mayoral election in Newark was a particularly heated battle that not only pitted two fierce competitors against one another but found two completely different political ideals duking it out for power.
Marshall Curry's Street Fight follows the Newark race with notable depth and bravery. He gets under the skin of what makes this ugly election so important and pulls no punches getting to the truth. He mostly follows challenger Cory Booker as he tries to unseat incumbent Sharpe James, Newark's mayor for several decades. Booker, a political outsider with an Ivy League education, has a serious uphill battle against James, on old fashioned politician who gains his support by throwing parties for his constituents and appealing to their sense of civic pride even while he makes deals beneficial to big developers. James comes from the old-school of political campaigning where the election version of bare-knuckled brawling is the norm. He thinks nothing of misrepresenting Booker with half-truths and flat-out lies. He even attacks Booker for not being black enough for Newark, calling him a white Jewish Republican controlled by the extreme right (a charge that boggles the mind for its weirdness).
Booker for his part tries to stick to the issues but discovers at a certain point that you have to play the political machine game on some level. He hands out gifts and tries to respond to James' insults. It's really fascinating to watch Booker, who lives in a run-down Newark housing development, try to engage a public who has been trained by James to only listen to sound bites. By the time a woman says that she'd have trouble voting for him because he makes promises and doesn't keep them (a strange charge against a challenger) and then proceeds to tell him that he doesn't actually live where he claims to live, as if it matters, Booker almost looks like his head will explode. But he recovers and goes back to fighting the fight.
Curry undoubtedly wanted to cover both campaigns with equal depth, but contrasted with his intimate access to the Booker squad, Curry's view of the James campaign is pretty minimal. That's because James and his cronies sic muscle on Curry whenever he's around. Sometimes hassled by police, but often by vaguely identified thugs, Curry is fearless in his pursuit of James. The paranoia of the James campaign is bizarre considering that most of the time Curry is trying to capture public events.
Most of the film's insider insight on the James campaign come from former James employees who are now working to elect Booker and from James' press secretary, possessor of the loosest set of lips ever possessed by a PR man. His inability to shut his trap around Curry is astonishing.
The rest of James' influence can be seen in the resigned expressions of local businessmen who have had their livelihoods threatened – and in some instances destroyed – by James-controlled regulatory agencies thanks to infractions like hanging Booker signs in their windows. It's hard to imagine this sort of Sopranos-style pressure being exerted by politicians in this day and age, but as the film progresses it becomes more and more clear just how tightly James holds Newark in his grip.
The beauty of the film, with its David and Goliath tale and sense of danger, is how exciting it is. Thanks to intuitive camera work and deft editing Curry has crafted more than just a documentary: Street Fight is a political thriller. Watching without knowledge of how the race ends is a real nail-biter. And Curry does a fine job of making this one mayoral race feel epochal: The battle between old and new ways of doings things, between opposing political styles, clearly has implications for other, larger races. Street Fight may be about Newark, but the political turmoil it explores is spilling out into streets all across the nation.
The full-frame video is fine. Shot on video, Street Fight looks like a respectable news program. The cinematography itself is intuitive and well-done. This is a very well shot film.
The stereo audio is clear and to the point. Voices are clear and
Ironweed's DVD of Street Fight includes two short films also covering elections. No Umbrella: Election Day in the City is a 26 minute narration-free glimpse into the frustrations of urban polling locations. With lines out the door as the polls open, elderly city councilwoman Fanny Lewis struggles for nearly an entire day just to convince the board of elections to send over a few extra voting machines. The film doesn't editorialize much but the implication is clear: Shot during the heated 2004 election cycle, No Umbrella displays just one of the sneaky ways elections are shaped by beaurocrats.
The other short film is Battleground Minnesota, an endearing 8 minute piece featuring Shakademic as he asks various Minnesota politicians (including Walter Mondale) some questions with the ultimate goal of cutting them together into a hip-hop video. Shak's funny and the film is nicely done.
Street Fight also includes an introduction by Arianna Huffington (which is not too interesting) and a ten-minute interview with Curry (which is).
Part of Ironweed's monthly film club, the Street Fight DVD is an excellent release filled with related documentaries. But the real draw here is the feature, one of the finest political documentaries I've seen in a long time. Booker and James are both engaging, fascinating subjects and the differences between them are striking. Hopefully interested viewers will be able to locate Street Fight on DVD through more traditional avenues if they're not ready to join a DVD club, but if Ironweed's output can consistently be as good as this they might be worth a look. Street Fight definitely is.