“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
2005. Unrated. Out on DVD. Free streaming on Netflix for subscribers. Directed & Produced by Marshall Curry. Featuring Cory Booker & Sharpe James.
Earlier this year, I reviewed a fantastic documentary called Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? about a former teacher of mine making a run for Congress. It was fascinating and inspiring and at times disillusioning — absolutely mandatory viewing for anyone that is interested in politics.
Today’s film, the Oscar-nominated Street Fight is a very similar look behind-the-scenes of a political campaign, but in some ways it represents the other side of the coin from Mr. Smith. It is similarly fascinating and also mandatory viewing for anyone with an interest in politics, but moreso for anyone who wants to get into politics — it will definitely beat any idealism out of you. We get to see firsthand corrupt tactics, old-school street politicking and straight-up dirty politics.
The protagonist and central character of the film is no less appealing a candidate as Jeff Smith was in Mr. Smith. Cory Booker, 32 at the time, a former Stanford football player, Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law grad moved to Newark, New Jersey during his 2nd summer at Yale Law and stayed there afterwards, working tirelessly in the community before winning a seat on the City Council in a major upset. Booker is extremely intelligent with impeccable credentials, idealistic but somewhat naive (despite his resources, he chooses to live in an apartment in one of the worst housing projects in the city), and a commanding physical presence.
On the opposite end lays Sharpe James, a man who has spent over 30 years in politics, first as a City Councilman, and then as the mayor of Newark for 16 years. James grew up poor in Newark, served in the military and is regarded as a hometown hero, weathering numerous corruption scandals and leading a revitalization of the downtown district.
In 2002, Booker decided to run for mayor against James, going for his fifth term, and filmmaker Marshall Curry followed the campaign. Curry narrates the film, which is a little off-putting at first but makes more sense eventually as he unwittingly becomes an important part of the story as the James campaign tries to blackball him.
After Booker gains momentum in the polls and through fundraising, James resorts to his old bag of tricks, and the results are infuriating — you want to believe this type of stuff can’t happen here anymore but it’s amazing how well it ends up working. He divides the black community by singling out Booker as a light-skinned black (James is dark-skinned), lies about Booker being Jewish, calls him a faggot (ironically, former NJ gov Jim McGreevy shows up stumping for James) and of course, a carpetbagger. He uses his political power and the resources of the city to put pressure on the Booker campaign. One example (I don’t want to give them all away, but this is a good one) — he gets the police to illegally tear down all Booker signs and paint over Booker billboards. He makes for a fantastically hateable antagonist.
And of course, this makes Booker a very likeable protagonist. While he isn’t quite the underdog that Jeff Smith was in Mr. Smith, but he is taking on the establishment candidate who happens to be a lying, dirty, corrupt candidate.
The film never drags and by the time we reach Election Day, the suspense is as good as in any Hollywood film. There are a couple of subplots that don’t get proper follow-ups and there are a fair amount of gaps in time — with a running time of 83 minutes, I can’t help but think that Curry could have put more material in.
On the whole, though, Street Fight is a really great film and I highly recommend it. It is out on DVD, and if you’re a Netflix subscriber, it is available to watch on-demand streaming online. I don’t want to give away anything in the review, but I am going to post a comment below with a little on the action post-documentary. But really, see this movie.