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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Street Fight

Systematic corruption, political intrigue and electoral espionage. It may sound like Michael Mann's newest big ticket political thriller about the money men in Washington but I am instead referring to Marshall Curry's 2005 documentary about the 2002 mayoral campaign in Newark, NJ.

In one corner we have incumbent Sharpe James. He's slick, charming and able to throw one hell of a block party. He's also not above using his city's services to hinder the attempts of anyone running against him. In the 2002 election that someone is upstart city councilman Corey Booker, a well-educated idealist who takes up residence in one of Newark's worst tenement halls to better understand his constituency.

Despite that fact that both candidates are black democrats the campaign depicted here is cutthroat politics at its finest (or dirtiest). While Booker campaigns door-to-door until the late hours of night James uses the city health inspector to shut down Booker's fund-raising dinners. Booker soapboxes about health, education and crime while James insists that Booker isn't black enough to run Newark and accuses Booker of having connections with the KKK, the Republican party and the (gasp) Jews.

This is the movie's strongest point. It takes a detailed look at the strategies and ramifications of two different political ideologists while raising serious questions about race and our basic political system. We all know how elections are supposed to be run but rarely do we get a chance to see how they are really run.

This brings me to the movie's one main weakness. Like any good political campaign it lifts up one side while burying the other. Booker is depicted as a shining beacon of light while James is reduced to a slimy gutter snake always going for the low blow. In the movie James is a multi-term mayor but we never really see why he has such a mass appeal. Curry initially wants to make the movie a balanced examination of the race but (perhaps because of James own reluctance to participate in filming) James most egregious missteps seem to be a bit convenient.

In the end, however, it is easy to forgive these flaws because Street Fight is a captivating, impressively intimate peek into the shady corners of the American political system. The final results of this particular election (a relatively small occurrence when looking at the big picture) told me more about American politics than years of reading newspapers, watching CNN and slaving at school. It is a benchmark documentary, a must-see and a film that, in a perfect world, would be required viewing for every high school political science student.


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