Unless you are a true political junkie keeping track of mayoral races from distant places, or you are informed and from New Jersey or New York, then this question will not be something you are readily able to answer without guessing: Did Cory Booker win the election to become the mayor of Newark, New Jersey?
Street Fight covers the 2002 mayoral race in Newark, New Jersey between incumbent Sharpe James and city councilman Cory Booker. This documentary shows the nastiest sort of politics possible and the strange thing about it is that it: 1) isn’t in Louisiana; 2) isn’t in Texas; 3) isn’t in the 1920s; 4) isn’t in the 1950s. The politics of patronage that is famous in Louisiana and Texas (and other places like Chicago perhaps), the mudslinging of the 1920s was legendary and in the 1950s the whole fight was over who was the least red candidate given the amount of communist red paint being slung in all directions. Mr. Booker only had a campaign staff, volunteers, and what is the best form of campaigning possible: face to face, door to door. Even when I have shaken the hand of a politician whose views I do not support after he has mentioned them, I feel something, anything, which I do not get from commercials. His opponent has his office, all of the executive departments and even the police at his disposal. And he uses them.
Street Fight , the cover of the DVD is misleading since it shows Mr. Booker looking like a race baiter screaming at the top of his lungs (this pretty much never happens in the film), tries to be balanced, but the James campaign refuses to let Marshall Curry bring his camera into any but one event where he is, quite obviously—since it is on film—harassed by policemen. After this, he is barred from all events (footage used after this is borrowed from networks). Mr. Curry also said that repeated calls and faxes to the James campaign all went unanswered. It appears he made a good faith effort to admit some balance into the story but the James campaign was not interested.
Before I get into the somewhat surprising tactics used, I want to mention something that seems odd to me and I would hope seems odd to most voters. The voters of Newark are accustomed to getting gifts from people running for office (goodie bags, flowers, Mother’s Day cards) nothing truly expensive and nothing in cash (that we know about); but it still seems quite odd to me—one woman said that she wouldn’t support Mr. Booker because his Mother’s Day card looked cheaper than Mr. James’s. All politics is local, as the saying goes, but that one just seems a bit out of place to me.
Mr. Booker spends most of his time fighting from the trenches a 4 term mayor. This is the nature of politics of this sort, the incumbent always has a bully pulpit if nothing else; but Mr. James seems to remove the pulpit portion of this metaphor. He sends code inspectors to businesses with Booker posters in their windows. At any given time he calls Mr. Booker a carpetbagger, a white man, a Jew, a terrorist and so on. This is where the 1950s level of name-calling gets into the picture. Running for office is ugly and I doubt that anyone ever shows their better self in the process—those who try seem to be beaten to death by all comers. So this is to be expected and Mr. Booker did his own level of that by saying that the mayor had given himself several raises, had another job as a state senator so was pulling in a salary of a quarter of a million (saying he had 2 vacation homes, a yacht and a Rolls Royce)—all of these allegations had sources, but we were not privy to those sources.
This is a professional documentary that seems to hold no information back. Unpleasant things about Mr. Booker and uncomfortable things that happen in the campaign are not hidden. It runs for a little over 80 minutes and is pretty tense all the way through. It has some funny parts, but they are darkly comic. This is the bare-knuckled world of politics in a small place (you think presidential races are bad, take all of that negative energy and put it within the confines of one city). It will take a bit of time to calm down after the credits begin.
Who wins? I’m sure Wikipedia can say, but if you would rather wait, I can say that it is worth the wait.
What did you think of this review?