Saturday, February 28, 2009


Do you miss watching Keith every night on MSNBC? Need a political fix? Here's a great movie for you political junkies who can't get their jolt from debates over the TARP program.

Sharpe James was mayor of Newark, NJ for 20 years. His iron grip on power was challenged by Councilman Cory Booker in 2002. STREET FIGHT (2005) directed by Marshall Curry, documents the struggle to dislodge a long-time and popular incumbent who had all the heavy hitters come in to campaign for him, including the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

The first hour is an admiring, almost idolatrous, study of Cory Booker's life and career. The last 30 minutes is a tense study of the weeks before the election. Threats and intimidation are the stock in trade of Mayor James. His style is "give a little, take a little, take a little bit more," if I can quote Jackie Gleason. James's workers and police force painted over Booker signs or ripped them down.

As Election Day loomed, voter machine fraud was in the air and the U.S. Attorney came in to monitor the election, just like a third world nation. Booker's team prepares for the debate and tells him good points don't matter but clever sound bites do. Booker is prepared by them to do what it takes to win, but will he get in the mud? He shows the tenacity of a former college football star but he's playing against an NFL-calibre politico.

The doc filmer not being allowed to film James at rallies makes for great footage. Ugly threats from James's people are scary and sometimes we just hear secret audio with transcription. On audio we hear James accuse a man in the crowd of being a terrorist; turns out he's just a local guy: "I was just sitting there." But when James saw the Booker hat on his head he sent the cops after him. Two reporters take the filmer aside and tell him to be careful, his life could be in danger.

Great images: Booker in the gym, letting off steam: this guy is tough, hitting the weights and the heavy bag. Al Sharpton is on stage endorsing Sharpe James. Former President Clinton doesn't take sides but James runs a picture of himself and Clinton in his ads to give a false impression. Jesse Jackson endorses James. Dr. Cornell West endorses Booker. Sound trucks claiming that Booker's "not black" and "You suspect boy." Sounds funny to say but it turns into a racist campaign, the way Muhammad Ali baited Joe Frazier over authenticity.

A cute child shakes Booker's hand. She says "smell my hand" and interviewer says "What do you mean?" "Cory Booker smells like the future," she says.

Constant lies by James, even on Election Day, calling his workers "volunteers" and Booker's people paid workers; yet James's vols ID them themselves to the interviewer as paid workers from Philly who barely know who Sharpe James is.

Election Day poll problems of power outages, intimidation of Booker supporters, levers broken, not enough Booker poll workers; cop taking down Booker signs, more nasty sound trucks: "It's not how bright you are--it's how white you are!" Al Sharpton again, proudly marching down the street with his good friend James.

The polls close. James does great in the predominantly black districts.

Spoiler alert: results below:

James 28300
Booker 24800

The film ends with the note that Booker will try again in 2006.

Postscript: James chose not to run in 2006. Booker did and he won with 70 percent of the vote over a candidate associated with James. James had some trouble with the law in 2008 and you're welcome to Google him and find our what he's doing today. The wonder of it all is how he managed to fool so many for so long.

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