Wednesday 31 December 2008

Power, politics and race

Street Fight (2005), directed by Marshall Curry

When Marshall Curry began making Street Fight, his documentary about the 2002 Newark mayoral election, the idea of a black president in the White House was almost unimaginable. Its release on DVD however comes in the wake of Barack Obama’s election success and a wider discussion of race in politics than has ever been had before. Curry’s film set out to ask questions about the political-racial landscape of the United States. Six years on, those questions feel even more relevant.

Street Fight documents Cory Booker’s attempt to unseat Newark’s mayor of four terms, Sharpe James. James has spent 36 years in Newark politics, first as a councilman, then as mayor, then, from 1999 as mayor and state senator simultaneously. He is the city’s golden boy, credited with bringing a renaissance to Newark through both investment and reform. Booker on the other hand is young and inexperienced, with only four years with the city council on his CV. He is, however, extremely bright, sincere and passionate about his cause, going so far as to move onto one of the most deprived housing estates in the city in order to be closer to his constituents.

With this film Curry intended to analyse the battle between two charismatic and promising candidates, both of whom happened to be African-American. He was surprised to find himself at the heart of a highly racialised election, during which the Democrat Booker was accused of being variously: not “really black”; Jewish; and in the pay of right-wing Republicans and the Ku Klux Klan.

Street Fight may be Curry’s first feature-length documentary, but his handling of this ugliness is just as it should be. No dogmatic, Michael Moore-style commentary here; his effective interview technique and subtle editing allow the Newark electorate to speak through the film with an analysis of the situation that is succinct and enlightened. ‘We tell our children to get educated’, one Newarker says, ‘and when they do, we call them white. What kind of a message does that send?’ Optimists would suggest that now, in the ‘post-racial’ glow of Obama’s victory, that sort of question is no longer necessary. Most of us however are ready to wait and see.

Curry’s filmmaking is free from ego and agenda. His interest in the topic is obvious, as is his attempt to give each party their say. Although officially attached to Booker’s campaign, Curry is keen to show events from both perspectives. One of the most remarkable elements of Street Fight is the extent to which he is prevented from doing so.

Despite having been given permission to film James at campaign events by the mayor’s press spokesman, Curry is unceremoniously thrown out of more than one rally. Man-handled by the Newark police who are ‘protecting’ James, he is left with no choice but to focus on Booker’s campaign. While this initially feels rather uncomfortable – the liberal viewer being fed a few facts and expected to rally round the filmmaker’s chosen candidate – it soon becomes clear that Curry’s intentions are good. His continued attempts to gain footage of the James campaign, despite attacks on his property and person, are valiant.

James’s apparent diffidence and the subsequent frustration of his (Democrat Party-appointed) press spokesman are indicative of a larger issue surrounding the campaign, one that Curry also picks up on: the relatively limited role of the media in comparison to the strength of on-the-ground electioneering.

Booker spends hours every day knocking on doors and stalking the streets for voters. Curry films the dinners and parties both candidates put on for the electorate and makes a feature of the presents that they feel they must supply to gain people’s support. To someone used to the propriety of British elections this process is suspicious. It feels like vote buying, more reminiscent of George Eliot’s 1866 novel, Felix Holt: The Radical, than the exercise of democracy in what is supposed to be the land of the free.

Curry brings to light another disturbing facet of local Newark politics: the corruption and extortion deployed by James’s government to maintain the status quo. Perhaps this underbelly is the reason for the mayor’s reluctance to be filmed. It’s often only when people start making films and asking uncomfortable questions that these sorts of things come out.

Those who criticise James or his government are in danger of losing their jobs, having their businesses shut down, or being evicted from social housing. Many Newarkers are wary of putting up Booker campaign posters for fear of reprisals. Booker himself was threatened on a number of occasions. Prevented from entering a candidates’ debate with his camera, Curry manages to sneak in a tape recorder and records a James supporter telling Booker to watch his back. Played against a black screen, it is a chilling moment in an otherwise light-hearted and often amusing film.

The threatening mood here evokes Michael Moore’s claim in Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), that Americans at that time were being kept in a state of fear by their leaders in order to keep them easily controllable. Where Moore is dogmatic and unsubtle, Curry is gently suggestive. As with other contentious subjects raised, he does not offer his opinion, just points his camera and listens without judgement.

There is much that is perturbing about American politics and race relations in Street Fight, but the tone is ultimately hopeful because of the irrepressible passion evinced by the Newark voters. At James’s rallies the crowd roar and applaud at his every word. Booker supporters angrily declaim the inadequacies of James’s administration. Voters appear to take personally any criticism of their chosen candidate. Curry gives apathy no screen time.

So although times were tough in 2002, there was hope for the future. One suspects that Newark voters will continue to be wooed by dinners and presents for a long time to come, but the fact that people young and old engaged with local politics with such zeal (and that Cory Booker did eventually get himself elected in 2006) is a very positive sign.

There is hope too in the prospect of further films from Marshall Curry. He is currently in post-production on a feature-length documentary, Racing Dreams (2009), about junior go-karting champions. If this next film has anything like the intelligence and charm of Street Fight, the world of documentary-making will have reason to rejoice.

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