Cory Booker, the senator from New Jersey and former mayor of Newark, announced last month that he’s running for president in 2020. 14 years ago, Booker starred in a movie, also about an uphill run for office against a corrupt, villainous incumbent.
The film was Street Fight, a 2005 documentary directed by Marshall Curry about Booker’s first, and unsuccessful, campaign for mayor of Newark in 2002. Booker, when he was a city councilman and only 33 years old, ran to challenge Sharpe James, the mayor since 1986, who at 66 was twice Booker’s age.
Both candidates were Democrats, and both were African-American. But the election was vicious and personal, and the documentary, directed by Marshall Curry, showed just how angry and tough city politics can get.
Battle in Brick City
The documentary, which is available to stream on Netflix, is a fascinating portrait of bare-knuckle, East Coast urban politics. But the 80-minute film also deals with a lot of issues that are still resonant in politics, and are likely to remain so in the 2020 election – most notably, questions of race and authenticity. Another documentary from the following year, Tigre Hill’s The Shame of a City, provided a look at the similarly contentious Philadelphia mayor’s race in 2003.
Booker wasn’t a Newark native, having attended Stanford and grown up in a middle-class suburb. But around the time he ran for City Council, Booker moved into an apartment in the Brick Towers, in one of Newark’s rougher areas. His pitch was that he was a young man, unencumbered by corruption, who could unleash the city’s potential.
…a fascinating portrait of bare-knuckle, East Coast urban politics. But the 80-minute film also deals with a lot of issues that are still resonant in politics, and are likely to remain so in the 2020 election …
In the election, as seen in the film, James and his supporters made lots of wildly unfair and inaccurate accusations about Booker. They implied that he was a Republican, that he was gay, that he was Jewish, and that he was a tool of suburban, Jewish, and Republican interests, seeking to take over Newark. James and his supporters referred to the imcumbent as “The Real Deal.”
Booker was also accused of not really living in Brick Towers and, because he was relatively light-skinned, he even had his blackness questioned, in attacks similar to those currently being leveled at another presidential candidate, Kamala Harris.
James won the election that was depicted in the film, but he backed off a re-election fight in 2006, leading to Booker’s election as mayor. James ended up convicted on five fraud counts in connection with a scheme in which he rigged the sale of city lots to his mistress; for which he later served two years in prison for.
Lessons of The Doc
So what can we tell about Booker’s presidential chances from the film? Sharpe James may be different from Donald Trump in lots of key ways, but like Trump he was a brazenly corrupt politician, one prone to conspiracy-mongering, race-baiting, and using the machinery of government to strike at his enemies. James, like Trump, was also a sexual hypocrite, having vowed to fire any staffer caught patronizing a “house of ill repute,” when James was known to visit such establishments himself. And James had passionate supporters, who also favored red hats.
Sharpe James may be different from Donald Trump in lots of key ways, but like Trump he was a brazenly corrupt politician…
The film, while clearly much more sympathetic to Booker, nevertheless shows that the candidate was reluctant to engage in bare-knuckle political combat with someone like James – and after all, he ended up losing that election. That raises the question of whether Booker’s brand of politics will work against a figure like Trump.
Even after 14 years and a promotion to national politics. Booker’s persona is not especially different in the film than it is today, which likely speaks well of him; he also doesn’t look noticably older, which is likely attributable to his veganism and abstention from smoking and drinking. The never-married senator, who’s been romantically linked of late to actress Rosario Dawson, has served for a long time as an elected official from the state of New Jersey without ever suffering a corruption scandal, which is quite a rare achievement.
“Do You Want To Be President?”
However, if there’s been a consistent knock on Booker throughout his career, it’s that he’s not quite authentic. He can come across as a brown-noser and people pleaser. And while he’s also been criticized as either not progressive enough or too close to Wall Street, one of the more embarrassing moments of his career took place on the very first episode of the sadly departed Comedy Central series The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore.
Booker appeared on the premiere of that show, back in January of 2015, and it doubled as the debut of Wilmore’s “Keep It 100” bit. The idea involved Wilmore putting his guests on the spot with a question and asking them to answer it with 100% honesty. If they gave a weak answer, he would throw paper at them marked “weak tea.”
When it was Booker’s turn, Wilmore’s question was simple:
“Uh, no,” Booker answered, to boos from the audience, the proclamation of weak tea from Wilmore, and the utter disbelief of every single person watching.
I expected at the time that if Booker ever ran for president, that clip would be thrown back at him repeatedly, but four years later, it’s barely surfaced. See Booker’s answer, at around the 2:45 mark:
Sure, the 99 senators besides Booker are probably just as eager to be president as he is, and might not have come across any better in that exact moment. But Booker’s the one who actually said it.
Street Fight has several moments that recall The Wire, including the fourth season election year plotline, and especially a scene in which the mayor presides over the demolition of a housing project, one that turns out to have been rather ill-advised.
And Street Fight was released during the height of The Sopranos, which was also set in northern New Jersey, in the suburbs outside of Newark. On that show, Newark was usually depicted as either a haven for drugs and crime, as a spot where the mobsters could carry out sophisticated construction embezzlement schemes, or the place where most of the characters grew up before fleeing due to the 1967 riots. The upcoming Sopranos prequel movie, The Many Saints of Newark, is set against that backdrop.
Street Fight was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. Curry is nominated once again, for Best Documentary Short, for A Night at the Garden, an astonishing short film about a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939. You can watch the short here. Curry hosted a screening of both films in New York on Monday, and reports say he’s working on a sequel, about Booker’s presidential run.
Whether you’re a supporter of Booker’s or not, Street Fight is highly recommended as a depiction of American politics at its ugliest – until 2020, that is.
Street Fight has several moments that recall The Wire, including the fourth season election year plotline…