Hard Boiled New Jersey Politics: 'Street Fight' Filmmaker Marshall Curry talks about his new documentary Street Fight. The chronicle of the 2002 mayoral race in Newark, N.J., illustrates the city's rough-and-tumble politics.
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Hard Boiled New Jersey Politics: 'Street Fight'

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Hard Boiled New Jersey Politics: 'Street Fight'

Hard Boiled New Jersey Politics: 'Street Fight'

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Mr. MARSHALL CURRY (Filmmaker, "Street Fight"): Old-style machine politics that have been banished really from most of the rest of the country still exist.


Filmmaker Marshall Curry took a look at the tactics that have kept one of the nation's best known mayors in office. Sharpe James of Newark, New Jersey, has been on the job for nearly two decades. He's a past president of the National League of Cities, a friend of Democratic presidential candidates and leader of a city in the midst of a revival.

Mayor SHARPE JAMES (Newark, New Jersey): Today, I wish to continue to give something back to the city of Newark that took a poor boy living on Howard Street and South Verge Avenue(ph) in one room with a potbelly stove, one pair of sneakers, one pair of pants, and today, the poor boy from Howard Street is your mayor and seeking re-election.

(Soundbite of applause)

MONTAGNE: That's the charismatic side of Mayor Sharpe James. Steve Inskeep spoke to the filmmaker who documented another side.


The film called "Street Fight" chronicles a campaign in 2002. Marshall Curry's camera captured a mayor who was in a brutal fight for re-election and deeply suspicious of the filmmaker.

(Soundbite from "Street Fight")

Mayor JAMES: Who are you taking pictures of, young man?

Mr. CURRY: We're making a documentary.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, don't worry about it.

Mayor JAMES: That's what I thought, you were a Cory Booker man.

Unidentified Man #2: Kill your film. You can film everybody else but him.

Mayor JAMES: We don't want you filming--I don't want you putting me on camera.

Mr. CURRY: OK. It's not about recording...

Mayor JAMES: Next time we'll take your camera.

Mr. CURRY: For public ...(unintelligible) events--to public events...

Unidentified Man: Don't just film--film them, but you're not going to film him. He don't want you to.

Mr. CURRY: He's the mayor of the city. I'm allowed to film him.

INSKEEP: When the mayor accused the filmmaker of being a Cory Booker man, he was saying, `You're too close to my opponent.' Marshall Curry was indeed a supporter of the challenger in this race. Candidate Cory Booker was a young Rhodes scholar and city councilman. He had moved into a public housing project.

(Soundbite from "Street Fight")

Mr. CORY BOOKER: So let's play for real right now. If every politician was on the streets--OK?--out there really fighting to make real solutions--OK?--they're living in the--make every politician live in the worst neighborhood in their city, I guarantee the city will turn around a lot quicker.

INSKEEP: His camera in hand, Marshall Curry watched the two men compete for votes across an old industrial city with a long history of brutal politics and political corruption.

Mr. CURRY: The mayor's chief of staff was put in jail for stealing money. The mayor's chief of police has been put away as well, but the mayor himself has never been indicted or convicted of any crimes.

INSKEEP: What do you think you learned about politics and the way the game is played by spending this time looking at this political campaign for a long period of time?

Mr. CURRY: I knew before I went in that politics are rough and that politics are dirty. I don't think that I realized that machine politics still existed in America anymore.

INSKEEP: This documentary catalogues misdeeds such as a business owner who claims that he received a code violation for supporting the wrong candidate. Curry claims that city workers could lose their jobs for backing the challenger. Newspapers reported these allegations at the time of the campaign.

I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point out that strippers end up playing a role in this film.

Mr. CURRY: That's right. At one point, Cory Booker's chief of staff gets picked up outside of a strip club in Newark when it's being raided. And the mayor turns that into a political issue.

(Soundbite from "Street Fight")

Mayor JAMES: If any member of my staff sleep with a place of prostitution and narcotics that's illegal in the city of Newark, they don't have to touch them, I'm still going to fire them.

Mr. CURRY: Then we find out a little bit later that the mayor himself had been at that strip club.

INSKEEP: Mayor Sharpe James did admit going to the strip club but only as an observer of wrongdoing.

You covered this race between two black candidates, and in the end, the incumbent, Mayor Sharpe James, began speaking as though he were running against a white man.

Mr. CURRY: That's right. Both men are African-American. Both men are Democrats, but he began to talk about Cory as if he weren't authentically black and that led to a real discussion in Newark of how we define race. And that's not just an issue for Newark. I mean, I remember editing a scene in the film and then getting up and turning on my television to watch Barack Obama at the Democratic convention talk about the slander that says that a black child who's holding a book is somehow acting white. It's a national issue really.

INSKEEP: How did Cory Booker, the challenger in this mayoral campaign, deal with those issues in his own life and in his politics?

Mr. CURRY: I think that probably his campaign underestimated the power of calling somebody white. His parents had been civil rights activists. They had integrated a white community when he was a child, and he'd grown up in a mostly white suburb. And I think he just thought that people wouldn't believe it.

(Soundbite from "Street Fight")

Mayor JAMES: I get tired of people coming into Newark, moving their family here and then say, `You know, Newark is so terrible, you're going to die. Your sky's going to fall out. You're going to go in quicksand.' But they move here. Why? A political agenda. A political agenda. Stop that nonsense.

Mr. CURRY: Sharpe James is a very funny, very charismatic guy, and Cory Booker also has an amazing charisma. Probably his charisma is a little bit better one on one than it is in a group. Some people think he can get to be a little bit of a policy wonk, and at one point, there's a scene in the film where he's arguing with his press person about whether he will memorize one-liners to use in a debate, and he wants to know the specific statistics about the tax rates in Newark.

INSKEEP: Who in the end seemed to understand the voters better, the old-style politician or the policy wonk?

Mr. CURRY: In the end, the election was decided by 3,000 votes, and the analyses of the results showed that Cory carried the younger generation and Sharpe James carried the older generation. So each of them I think understood the constituencies that they were speaking to.

INSKEEP: You're in a situation that almost everybody in this country has been in at one point or another, where the guy that you strongly support didn't win the election. When that happens, how do you end up feeling about the electorate that made its decision?

Mr. CURRY: At the end of the film, Cory Booker loses, and I would be not telling the truth if I didn't admit that I was disappointed. If there's a takeaway from the film, it's that politics are dirty, politics are rough and they require vigilance. And if we want our government to get better, it requires people to get in the fight and get beaten up and take a breath and then get back in the fight again.

INSKEEP: Marshall Curry's film is called "Street Fight" and it's in the PBS series "Point of View" tonight on many stations.

Thanks very much.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Steve Inskeep, I'm Renee Montagne.

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