Keep telling yourself: It's really happening in America.
That's the necessary response to some of the more outrageous perversions of the democratic process captured in Street Fight, Marshall Curry's electrifying, Oscar-nominated documentary about the 2002 mayoral race in Newark, N.J. Otherwise, you might begin to suspect that you're instead looking in on some third-rate dictatorship, where a megalomaniacal incumbent can break the law with impunity and practice all manner of shady intimidation (of both his opponent and the public) to hold onto the reins of power.
The challenger is Cory Booker, an energetic and well-spoken freshman councilman with a yen for reform. Raised in a privileged household outside the city limits, he's moved into one of Newark's low-income housing complexes to (he says) stay in touch with the people he serves. He's a Rhodes scholar, an ex-Stanford footballer and a graduate of Yale Law School.
Booker is nearly the polar opposite of his opponent, Mayor Sharpe James. James has been in office since 1986, in part because of the economical renewal that's been credited to his administration and largely due to his mastery of the political game. He's prone to affecting a "just-folks" persona in front of inner-city voters who respond to homiletic razzle-dazzle masquerading as straight talk. And it doesn't hurt that he'll swiftly call in the police and/or code-enforcement authorities to punish business owners who dare display a challenger's placards.
If you caught the thematically related doc Revolution '67 at the recent Florida Film Festival and yearned for more information about the character and concerns of modern-day Newark, here it is. As Curry's voice-over narration tells us, elections here are won less on the basis of slick marketing campaigns than on street-level appeals. James talks up the success of a downtown revitalization that's brought in business and razed slums, while Booker points out that low-income people have even less options in this newly bifurcated city. Yet as the campaign heats up, James shows that he'd rather sling mud than defend his record. He hits every note in the incumbent's songbook, assailing Booker as an inexperienced outsider ("carpetbagger" is his more colorful term) and warping Booker's call for change into a criticism of the city itself.
The zeal of Booker's candidacy is what Curry says interested him in capturing the race on film. But thanks to James' strong-arm tactics, he rapidly learns that he'll be getting a whole lot more. While it may unnerve a filmmaker to have undercover cops repeatedly shoving his camera out of public places as James' lackeys do after deciding that Curry is shooting for "the other side" it makes for great storytelling. So do interviews with store- and homeowners who say they were illegally coerced into supporting the mayor's re-election run. So do hysterically exaggerated prostitution scandals. And Watergate-style break-ins. And a campaign spokesman who admits on camera that his boss (James) is utterly "paranoid." Once the contest is fully underway, there's barely a frame of Street Fight that isn't election-doc gold.
Then there's the great unspeakable to consider. From our first introduction to Booker who, though fully and proudly black, is about as light-skinned as Vin Diesel we feel a sick sense in our stomachs that somebody is going to play the pigment card the minute this race tightens up. James doesn't disappoint, nor does he stop at assailing Booker for not being black enough. He brands him a "white Republican" (though both men are registered Democrats), then compounds it with wild, potentially devastating assertions about the councilman's sexual orientation, religious background and (supposed) affiliation with the KKK. Even audiences inured to the dirty tricks of Karl Rove will be flabbergasted to see how far one man can sink to secure an elective office. Street Fight isn't just a great film; it's essential viewing to prove to yourself that you're not so cynical after all.