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Bare-knuckle politics

There's an old saying in Newark, New Jersey, that the city's political leaders only leave office by death or conviction.

It's a principle the city's longtime mayor Sharpe James apparently takes seriously based on the evidence of Marshall Curry's fascinating, disturbing documentary, Street Fight. Curry's film follows a brutal 2002 mayoral campaign between James and his articulate, energetic challenger, Cory Booker. The campaign attracts national attention because it pits two African Americans from different generations and socio-economic backgrounds against each other and bitterly divides the city's black population.

Newark Councilman Cory Booker (above) challenged incumbent mayor Sharpe James (below) in 2002 in what became a brutal battle to the political death, captured on film in Street Fight.

On the surface, Booker looks tough to beat. He's extremely well-educated (Stanford University, Yale Law School, a Rhodes Sholarship to Oxford); a former college athlete; a straight arrow who doesn't drink, smoke, or eat meat; an idealistic city councilman who lives in Newark's most run-down housing project so he can stay connected to his constituents; and a rising star endorsed by everyone from Bill Bradley to Spike Lee. What's more, he's a young voice for change in a city with a poverty level of more than 30 percent and a high-school dropout rate of 60 percent.

But James demonstrates both a public folksiness and a private willingness to unleash every last bit of the municipal machinery against his opponent. Over the course of the campaign the city shuts down a car-wash owner who openly supports Booker, a cop who supports Booker gets transferred to night patrol in a dangerous neighborhood, and a minister who criticizes James finds his church threatened by code enforcement. James and his henchmen also harass Curry whenever he turns up at public events to film the mayor.

P.O.V.: Street Fight
10pm Tue, Jul 5
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In Curry's bare-bones doc, James comes off as a former reformer jaded by too many years in power, like Marion Berry without the sweet tooth for crack. Sensing that he's in the fight of his political life, James plays the ugliest brand of racial politics imaginable, alternately suggesting that the light-skinned Booker is white, gay, part of a Jewish conspiracy, a tool of the Republican Party, and a silver-spoon carpetbagger trying to buy votes. When Booker criticizes James' administration, the mayor shrewdly tells voters that his challenger is denigrating the city. At one point, with a mixture of frustration and admiration, Booker says, "Sharpe has this amazing ability to tell a lie so many times that people believe it is the truth."

After watching this ballot-box bloodbath unfold, you'll probably come away convinced that it's a required skill for all successful American politicians.

By Gilbert Garcia

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