Friday, November 19, 2010

Alpha dogfight

You've seen this movie: the well-educated reformist upstart against the old-time machine politician. That's the premise of Street Fight (2005) the story of Cory Booker's first unsuccessful run for mayor of Newark against Sharpe James. And we've even seen the ending before. No, he is not swept into office riding a triumphant wave of popular acclaim. He loses, as Booker did in 2002. And the film ended that way when it was first seen in festivals in 2005. By the time it was released theatrically, Booker had succeeded in his second run in 2006, and a title card was added to the film to acknowledge that success, which was confirmed when Sharpe James was sent to jail in 2008 for fooling around with public money, the kind of charge which usually ends political careers.

In a way this mirrors the end of the film adaptation All The President's Men, which stopped halfway through the book it was based on, when the protagonists Woodward and Bernstein were at a low ebb and had just made a colossal blunder. But the audience could supply the happy ending, and perhaps including it would have been just too self-congratulatory. So we leave Cory Booker in defeated in Street Fight, but does the film itself change once Booker has won in 2006? And is the film different now that Booker has reduced crime in Newark and is tackling the school problem, with the support of the Republican governor and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who has pledged $100 million of his shares in Facebook to help fix education?

For a documentary about a political campaign, it steers clear of a lot of politics. The only issues addressed in depth are Sharpe James's machine, its corruption (e.g. using city employees to take down Cory Booker signs), the lack of finance for Booker's campaign (he visits a particularly bleak looking campaign office), James's reluctance to be photographed at a public appearance, and whether Booker is "black" enough. Unlike, for instance, The War Room, the landmark doc about the 1992 Clinton campaign, we are not privy to the strategy of the campaign. We don't know much about the wards and how each candidate is appealing to them. We don't learn much about the party structure -- the story is complex, because the candidates are running from the same party, the only party in Newark, the Democratic party.

Perhaps the most interesting "inside" scene is a fundraiser for Booker in Montclair, a well-heeled suburb 15 minutes outside of Newark, in which we meet his father, an elegant soft-spoken gentlemanly type, though he was a civil rights activist. It intimates that the only kind of money Booker is going to be able to get to run in a dirty town like Newark, is money from outside of Newark. But the film never explores the question -- why not? Fear of offending the candidate? And why no postmortem after the election, either from participants or observers? Is it because director Marshall Curry knows that life will provide a dramatic sequel, or was it simply an oversight?

It is a good film, a film worth seeing, but its protagonist, visible and voluble as he is, remains a cipher. It never asks the question, why does a kid from comfortable Harrington Park, a graduate of Northern Valley Regional (near my home in prosperous Bergen County) want to go roll in the mud with Sharpe James and his associates? Not that Booker could give you an answer, but why wasn't the question asked?

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