Marshall Curry’s Street Fight, about the controversial 2002 Newark mayoral race between two very different Democrats, is a terse, raw gem of a political documentary—as scrappy and no-nonsense as its title suggests. The film also sets up the requisite binary opposition that drives most classic dramas: a clear-cut underdog vs. top-dog conflict. The challenger in the race is squeaky-clean, 32-year-old Yale Law grad Cory Booker who was born in upscale N.J. suburbs but now resides in Brick Towers, the low-income Newark housing project. The incumbent is 66-year-old Sharpe James, a former Newark street kid, who was elected mayor in 1986. By 2002, James had become the archetypal Rolls-driving, yacht-owning, strip-club-haunting fat cat, with the ethics of an Atlantic City street pimp.
The opening minutes of the film record the shaky beginnings of Booker’s almost naively altruistic campaign, as he solicits votes door-to-door in a Newark housing project. Here, too, is where you first witness James’ shameless intimidation tactics: High-ranking cops confront Booker’s team and order them off the premises. Of course, this is a neglected neighborhood whose police presence is usually nil—an irony not lost on Booker.
Turns out James regularly uses the Newark police as his personal goon-squad, serving his every sub-Maoist whim: mobilizing officers for petty assignments like removing pro-Booker posters and roughing up Curry’s camera. James uses some familiar Rove-like tactics, too. He not only “feminizes” Booker by calling him a “faggot,” but also plays on intra-racial prejudices—spreading rumors that Booker, a light-skinned African American, was actually a white Republican and might even be Jewish. One of Curry’s “gotcha” moments, however, happens in a late scene where the mayor declares a certain busload of pro-James canvassers to be an all-volunteer force from Newark; upon further inspection, these “volunteers” are actually paid employees, shipped in from Philly.
Street Fight serves as another sobering reminder of just how fragile American-style democracy can still be. More importantly, Curry spotlights the “two Newarks” that began emerging during Sharpe James’ tenure, mirroring the dubious Bloomberg “renaissance”: Like NYC, Newark saw low-income housing being replaced with exclusive residences serving the upper-middle class—developments that Booker refers to as “symbols of a renaissance, not the substance of a renaissance.”