SPOILER ALERT!: Do not read the following interview if you do not want to know the outcome of the 2002 Newark mayoral election documented in the film Street Fight.
L.A. WEEKLY: What response to the film have you had from the James and Booker camps?
MARSHALL CURRY: Cory had no creative control over the film at all, so the first time he saw it, it was essentially done. I was very nervous, because I had stuff in there that he didn’t know that I had. When the screening was over, he argued with me about a couple of things, but overall, I think he felt like it was a record of what happened. As for Sharpe James: We’d played at some film festivals before the film was on television, and a lot of times the press would ask him for a comment and his office wouldn’t say anything — they wouldn’t even say if they’d seen the film, which was smart, because they didn’t want to draw undue attention to it. But the day after it aired on PBS, a mailing went out around the city saying: “Would you trust a film about the Holocaust made by Adolf Hitler? Would you trust a film about the Alamo made by a Mexican? Then why would you trust a film about the Newark election made by Cory Booker–supporter Marshall Curry?” So their response has been that it’s total propaganda. But they haven’t said that anything was taken out of context, or that there’s any fancy editing that’s unfair. They haven’t denied anything about the film.
And what about the reaction from the people of Newark?
I really wanted the people of Newark to say that this was right, that this was what happened. Newarkers are very defensive about their city because they get slammed — people make fun of the city all the time. So I didn’t want to make a film about what an awful place Newark is and how bad the politics are. I wanted to show it as a complicated city. For example, there’s that scene where I talk about discovering the middle-class neighborhoods and the parks and the parts of Newark that are beautiful and that people are really proud of. When we screened the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, we had four or five screenings, each of which was 20-25 percent Newarkers who’d come across the river and, mostly, people felt like it was accurate. Some people said they’d followed Newark politics for a long time and had heard about all these things happening during the campaign, but until they saw them for themselves, they were skeptical. But the majority of people said, “Yeah, I knew about that, and that’s how things work in Newark.”
Two weeks ago, Booker announced that he will indeed seek the mayor’s office again in this year’s election, but Sharpe James has yet to announce whether he will seek another term.
I think he probably will, but I don’t know. The thing is, if he doesn’t run, he’s really giving the election to Cory, because by waiting until the last minute to make a decision, he’s screwing anybody else’s chances of being able to get their petitions in and to get on the?ballot. But there’s nobody that his machine has anointed as the next mayor, which makes me think that he’s going to run himself. A lot of people have said that he would love to not be mayor again, that he would like to sit it out, but that he can’t stand the idea of Cory being mayor, and so he’s going to run just to show that young punk one more time.
It seems Booker may be the test case for whether or not it’s still possible for a true reformer to get elected to any major political office in this country.
One of the things that’s struck me that I didn’t expect is the way that people have seen this film as a film about the country, and not just about Newark. When I was making it, I thought it was an incredibly exciting story about a struggle between two guys. And I thought it said something about the new generation of African-Americans, who’ve had opportunities that their parents didn’t have and are coming into power — whether it’s Barack Obama or Cory Booker or Harold Ford — and how that group is different from the old guard. But I’ve been amazed at how many people have seen the election in Newark as a stand-in for the Kerry-Bush election: You’ve got one guy who’s funnier and who you’d rather have a beer with, but who isn’t exactly on the up and up; the other guy’s a little bit stiffer, but obviously smarter. And also the way that a lie told over and over starts to become reality, whether it’s that Cory Booker is a white Jew or that John Kerry is a war criminal.