Monday, August 6, 2007

AverageBro Goes To the Movies: Street Fight

[With an infant, I don't get to go to the movies at all nowadays. Pre-AverageBaby, I didn't miss an opening weekend. Now, Netflix is my best friend. So, I don't see things in a timely manner, but when I do, you get the best review in town right here.]

I'm not the biggest documentary fan, especially not of Michael Moore, who is the cinematic equivalent of Wikipedia. Folks who wouldn't know SilverDocs from a piece of jewelry, watch Sicko and are suddenly HMO experts. Most documentaries (with the exception of the brilliant Boys of Baraka) fail to truly educate the viewer beyond whatever agenda, thinly veiled or otherwise, they're trying to push. Street Fight, a behind the scenes look at Corey Booker's unsuccessful 2002 campaign for mayor of Newark, New Jersey, in likewise incredibly one-sided, but still a compelling enough examination of modern day black politics to make it rental-worthy.

For the unfamiliar, Corey Booker, like Barack Obama, Harold Ford, and DC's own Adrian Fenty, is hailed as superstar new-school politician. Raised in the burbs to a family of post-civil rights era black professionals, Booker went to Stanford (as a football player), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and Yale Law, before returning to Newark as a city councilman and making an ill-fated run for mayor, which Street Fight chronicles. On the surface, this isn't a particularly interesting premise for a 90 minute movie, but what is enlightening is how Booker is compared and contrasted versus the incumbent, Sharpe James.

James is from the Marion Barry school of politics, a 60's era civil rights champion who rode into office at a time when blacks were anxious for a man who looked like them to run their majority black city. Like many others of his generation (see also: Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young), James did some great things early on that endeared him to his populace, even long after it became evident that he was no longer effective. Like Barry, much of James appeal was that he was a candidate that appealed to black people's worst fears: that The Man was out to take him down, that a vote for his younger, less experienced opponent would fuel gentrification, that change was not good for maintaining the progress many blacks of the civil rights era had fought so long and hard to gain.

The movie follows 4-months-or-so of the campaign, and tells Booker's side of the story exclusively, which indeed makes it feel a bit one-sided. Booker, single, light skinned, well-educated, young (early 30's) and articulate, is a direct contrast to the crass, colorful, and allegedly corrupt James. As Booker gains momentum in the polls, James goes into full scale defensive politics, accusing Booker of being gay, Jewish (?), not black enough, and a pawn for right-wingers who want to take over Newark. Businesses who campaign openly on Booker's behalf find themselves shut down by the city. Police are used to illegally dissuade supporters. James concocts stories of Booker taking money from questionable sources, and hiring campaign workers involved in under aged prostitution rings. It is a real-life examination of American racial politricks at their worst.

This is no spoiler for anyone even remotely familiar with US politics, but James manages to narrowly edge Booker (52%-48%)in the end, proving that dirty tactics and inter-race baiting can trump substance and new ideas even today. Booker eventually did get elected Newark mayor just last year, beating James' hand picked successor in a landslide as the movie's epilogue proudly proclaims. James, who didn't seek re-election, is now under federal investigation for allegedly misspending city funds for vacation homes in Florida and Brazil. Karma's a "B".

For anyone who wants a view an insightful, albeit biased, documentary on the behind the scenes goings on of modern day big-city politricks through the prism of race and age, I'd strongly recommend Street Fight. Released last year, you should easily be able to find it at Netflix, or your nearest DVD/chicken shack/bodega.

Street Fight
Official Website

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