My easy pick for documentary of the year is filmmaker Marshall Curry’s “STREET FIGHT”, a fascinating and at times infuriating story of the 2002 mayor’s race in Newark, NJ. Maybe you’ve heard mention of this one – it was nominated for an Academy award earlier in the year and got tons of frothing press at the time – and it just came out on DVD. It’s as great as I’d heard, maybe the single best doc I’ve watched since “CAPTURING THE FREIDMANS”. It’s about an upstart black politician & Newark city councilman named Cory Booker who’s running for mayor against the 16-year incumbent Sharpe James, and what happens when he actually gets close enough to the entrenched James to potentially win. It rips off any naïve veil that might have existed on the state of urban politics and elections, and just how far an incumbent can go to abuse the privilege of office to hold onto his post. One learns that an incumbent mayor in a big city can still, in the 21st century, manipulate every single government-run agency (most notably the police force) to ensure that his opponent can’t gain the upper hand, and how well that seems to sit with many people within the community – particularly those (developers, unions, civic groups) who’ve grown accustomed to patronage and handouts over the years. The film also shines a particular light what can happen in cities where two black candidates run against each other, and how, as has happened in Detroit over the years, one candidate (usually the one with the largest amount of white support) gets virulently “Uncle Tom”ed by the other.
Like the much-praised Barack Obama, Cory Booker is a well-spoken, energetic, moderate fresh face. Marshall Curry, a political junkie, says in the DVD extras that his brother told him he “had to meet this guy Booker”, so he came across the Hudson to Newark and found that the guy his brother was raving about seemed like the real deal. So he decided to make a film about Booker’s run for mayor, and ended up getting a lot more than he’d likely expected, including physical harassment and intimidation from Sharpe James’ supporters and from kingpin Sharpe James himself. James calls Booker “white” and even “Jewish” at various points in the film, and though the film tries at times to point to why James still commanded support within Newark (it wasn’t all patronage – even me, living on the west coast of the US, had read about Newark’s resurgence & sparkling new performing arts center in recent years), he’s a pretty hard sell once you get to “know” him in this film. That said, I won’t dismiss him out of hand, no matter how hard the film hues to Booker. We had a mayor in San Francisco a few years ago named Willie Brown who was also a scandal-plagued kingmaker, full of ethical holes & smoke-filled backroom promises, and who was a first-rate jerk to boot. He also got it done, and did more to improve this city in 8 years than any of his predecessors since the 1970s (I still didn’t like him much, but have to applaud many of the results). Cory Booker is/was a very seductive personality & an upstanding individual through and through, but at the end of the day, there are many ways to run a big city effectively.
In 1 hour & 20 minutes you’ve been through the wringer with these guys, and it’s a terrific ride, even if you’re not all that enraptured with politics the way dorks like me sometimes can be. And watch out for Curry – this guy can edit a film exceptionally well, and I hope he continues making docs this compelling for the foreseeable future.