Street Fight is a political documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award back in 2005. It centers on a 2002 mayoral election and while one might be tempted to think that a political documentary about an election would only be interesting if it was a presidential race, one would have to think again. The city is Newark, New Jersey and the candidates are one Cory Booker, a 32 year old Rhodes Scholar/lawyer/councilman and one Sharpe James who has been the incumbent mayor for 16 years. The title of the movie depicts pretty much how this political battle is fought; like a traditional bare-knuckle street brawl. Oh, and keep in mind both candidates belong to the Democratic Party.
What makes this documentary so fascinating is not just the candidates but pretty much all the elements. The votes they’re both after are in the crummy neighborhoods and housing projects of Newark, where poverty, crime and unemployment are all heavy hitters. But it’s also about race in America as both candidates are black.
It is shot mostly from the Booker campaign-point-of-view as he faces the political war machine of the more experienced Sharpe James. To be honest, it was more interesting than a big production Hollywood political flick. It’s American politics getting dirty in the mud. Booker’s signs are painted over or taken down in police presence, despite the law. City workers not supporting the mayor are suddenly demoted and one Booker campaigner is accused by Sharpe in the middle of a debate of being a terrorist and has his identity checked. Local businesses hosting Booker fund raisers are shut down under “code violations”.
The viewer sees a young inexperienced Booker basically trying to win this with dignity. He is fair skinned and Ivy League educated, both elements that come into play when Sharpe accuses him of not being “really black”. This comment in turn begins to split the people, some of whom begin to question Booker’s “blackness”. A Sharpe campaign van constantly interrupts Booker’s public speeches and on one occasion we hear the van’s loudspeakers blare things like “You’re suspect, boy. You ain’t black!”. At one point a Newark resident states: “We tell our children to get educated and when they do, we call them white. What kind of a message does that send?”
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It’s telling that despite the shenanigans Sharpe goes on to win this election and Booker goes on to run for mayor again in 2006, wining in a landslide but not against Sharpe. Perhaps one can easily argue that in politics it’s just impossible to win without flinging mud; without that street fight.
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The documentary is just plain fascinating and it really shows you how low politics can go in America. I guarantee you will be captivated by it. It’s probably the most interesting thing I’ve seen come out of New Jersey since The Sopranos. I highly recommend you get your hands on it.
Bottom Line: 5/5