By JESSE WEISSMAN
It doesn’t surprise anybody to say that politics is a dirty business — and one that tends to ignore the substantive issues that the whole enterprise claims to be about. Especially in today’s political climate, with the 2016 presidential race more resembling a reality show competition than an election for the most important public office in the country, this circus-show aspect to American politics is as clear as ever.
So when I say that the 2005 documentary Street Fight, presented on Tuesday at Cornell Cinema and directed by Marshall Curry, revealed to me new ways that politics is ugly, it would be easy to dismiss my opinion as obvious. However, the film, which is about the 2002 mayoral race between Cory Booker (now a well-known New Jersey Senator) and the long-time incumbent Sharpe James, explores just how much dirtier local politics are then, and how they allow for tactics that would be unacceptable in their national counterparts.
Since Booker is a now prominent national politician, it is a bit disorienting to see him as such an upstart, going through housing projects and corner stores canvassing for every last vote. Booker and his campaign team repeatedly remark throughout the film that political races in Newark are not won in T.V. ads or mailers, but in “the streets.”
The corruption on hand in Newark, New Jersey is astounding, even to the most jaded of government critics. James, Booker’s opponent, is the overt villain of the film. Street Fight reveals him unleashing the police to enforce byzantine codes against anyone who has a sign for Booker hanging in their business window, and using his security to slam their hands against the lens of Curry’s camera anytime he tried to film a campaign event or capture footage of James. But Booker, who prides himself on being a “clean” figure, undeniably has to play the game as well. For example, it is customary for politicians running for office in Newark to provide mountains of free food and entertainment for the local senior citizens, who also expect that fancy Christmas cards be sent to them. Booker initially resists from engaging in this genteel form of bribery, but he eventually says that he has no choice if he wants to keep up.
The city is not only corrupt in its bureaucracy and incentive structures; the election depicted in the documentary is also full of vicious personal attacks that register with uninformed voters. The James campaign openly accuses Booker of being a collaborator with and benefactor of mutually exclusive groups: the Republican Party, the KKK and Jews. James proudly says in interviews that he is a “real black,” as opposed to the Rhodes Scholar, Booker, who is not from Newark originally but rather a “carpetbagger,” telling the people of Newark how to behave. The ugly, racialized tactics used in national campaigns at least have to be disguised and claim that they are not about bigotry: Trump after all claims he loves Mexicans. Here, where the approval of the national media is not a factor, getting every last ignorant person’s vote is all that matters.
If you think that what I have written suggests that the film is a bit in the bag for the Booker campaign, you would be correct. Curry says that the James campaign refuses to give him access, confirmed by the aforementioned banning of Curry from any James event. Because we spend all of our time with the Booker campaign we naturally take his side. And of course, since the majority of the documentary shows the dirty tactics of the James campaign, it is hard to not see Booker as the clean reformer and James as the corrupt incumbent who is running the modern New Jersey Tammany Hall. Moreover, the film does not spend any time on the actual issues of the campaign. Cutty has no interest in looking at the effectiveness of either contender. This works in the film’s favor, however, because it allows the audience to devote its sole attention to the machinations of the campaign and how votes are personally won. But as a result, we do not know if our rooting for Booker is justified, or if Booker’s personal brand of charm is simply less sleazy than James’. Perhaps for a documentary that is more about the predatory and corrupt nature of local elections than the political issues they’re built around, that is actually the perfect ambiguity for the film to have.