It's remarkable how much corruption, boorishness, and all-around bad behavior voters will tolerate if they feel like their ethically challenged representatives are making good on promises to their constituency. "Throw the bums out!" is a reformers' mantra, but the perennially high re-election rates for incumbents illustrates that when offered a choice, voters tend to go with the devils they know.
All of which helps explain why Newark mayor Sharpe James, a deeply entrenched, oily-slick machine politician, is able to survive the kind of shenanigans and missteps that would spell suicide for most politicians. Marshall Curry's Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight—the April release from Ironweed, an ambitious, socially conscious DVD subscription service billing itself as "Netflix for lefties"—clumsily but unforgettably documents James' 2002 mayoral race against Cory Booker, a charismatic, clean-cut 32-year-old Rhodes Scholar who lives in the projects. In increasingly insane attacks aiming just below the belt, James tries to smear his ambitious young rival—a Southern Baptist and light-skinned African-American—as white, Jewish, and a Republican, and waxes moralistic about a Booker aide's sexual peccadilloes before being outed as a strip-club patron himself.
In some of the film's most wrenching scenes, James and his handlers personally harass and bully Curry, correctly pegging the director as a Booker acolyte. Curry stops just short of adding cartoon hearts fluttering around Booker in post-production to convey his admiration and respect for the underdog, whose lofty rhetoric, impeccable dress, and muscular physique all convey a polished perfectionism. The clean-living, overachieving Booker runs a squeaky-clean choirboy campaign, but politics isn't a business for men afraid to get their hands dirty. It's fascinating to watch Booker's high-minded idealism recede in the face of the dirty business of electoral politics, especially against a dirty street-fighter like James, who targets more than just journalists in his "harass the vote" campaign. As one fan guilelessly gushes, Cory Booker may represent the future—of Newark, of the Democratic Party, possibly even of politics itself—but as Street Fight memorably illustrates, elections are invariably fought and won in the present.
Key features: Two shorts and a director's interview.