The 2016 presidential election has often felt like a daily race to the bottom with each day seemingly fighting to make the claim, “No, THIS is the worst it’s ever been.” And we still have days left to go – there haven’t even been the definitive post-mortem books where the really juicy stuff comes out! We’ve always known politics were grimy and nasty, though perhaps we underestimated the extent to which they reveled in the dirt.
Though perhaps if more people (myself included) had seen Marshall Curry’s documentary “Street Fight,” my pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” the surprise might not have been so pronounced. This chronicle of the bitter campaign for Newark’s mayor in 2002 is a stunning display of politics at its worst. Like in this year’s “Weiner,” a present-day viewer can watch this nasty race and pick out undertones that eventually become overtones in the Trump-Clinton feud.
Less than 15 years ago, ascendant Democratic politician Cory Booker set out to make a big splash in Newark by challenging the town’s 16-year incumbent mayor, Sharpe James. While cities such as Chicago and New York conjure images of political corruption at the mere mention of their name, Newark does not lag too far behind. James somehow managed to ride out a major corruption scandal in the ’90s while many of his associates took the fall. He uses questionable means to hold onto his power, including intimidation of opponents and co-opting of the police for his own benefit.
But Booker, ever the inspiring figure, poses a serious threat to James by taking the high road. His optimistic message lobbying for change rather than accepting stagnation has appeal to Newark residents who feel their current mayor takes their support for granted. While James might lead a more lively rally, Booker can connect with voters and sell his story convincingly. His parents fought for equality in the Civil Rights era and were on the painful front lines of integration so Cory could get the education he deserved.
But what luck does a straight-laced candidate have when he goes up against a street fighter like James? His opponents pulls out all the stops, going full anti-Semitic to (falsely) smear his association with “the Jews” and accusing him of (gasp!) working as a covert Republican. Everyone seems to recognize these as blatant falsehoods, yet Booker is powerless to keep them from gaining media attention and reaching voters’ ears. Sound familiar? Curry’s camera, recording in spite of attempts by James’ political machine to stifle it, is there for the dispiriting longhaul. If Booker wants to make a run at the White House in 2024, we know from “Street Fight” that he’s battle-tested in the grimy game of political campaigns.