There’s a lot going on New Jersey these days: a heated race for governor, a money laundering and public corruption scandal that saw the arrest of 44 people in July, and a bumper crop of cranberries. The city of Newark, N.J., is also back in the spotlight as the focus of a new Sundance Channel documentary series, Brick City. We asked Marshall Curry, director of the Emmy and Oscar-nominated film Street Fight, which chronicles a bare-knuckled race for mayor of Newark and aired on POV in 2005, for an update on the city and the subject of his film, Cory Booker.
In 2002, I met a young city councilman from Newark, N.J, named Cory Booker. I remember being struck by his energy, his earnestness and his story. Cory’s parents were civil rights veterans who had integrated the suburban neighborhood where he grew up. He had gone to Stanford, Yale Law, and was a Rhodes Scholar — and then he had moved into one of Newark’s roughest projects and decided to get involved in politics.
When I met him he was only 32, but he was preparing to run for mayor against the wily and charismatic four-term incumbent, Sharpe James, who ran Newark’s political machine.
I’d never made a documentary before, but this seemed like a story worth pursuing: two black Democrats from different generations and different backgrounds, facing off in a city known for its bare-knuckles electioneering. So I bought a camera and started shooting.
A few years later, having learned quite a bit about urban politics — the corruption, the intimidation, the race baiting — I finished the documentary, Street Fight. It was launched at the Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Audience Award, and went on to broadcast nationally on PBS as part of POV.
Watch the trailer for Street Fight:
A couple weeks ago, I was back in Newark for the premiere of a new documentary series about Booker called Brick City (Sundance Channel), and it made me reflect on how much has changed since Street Fight.
Cory, the upstart city councilman, is now Mayor Booker. Four years after being defeated in the election I followed, Cory ran again, and was elected in the biggest landslide in the history of the city. He’s become something of a celebrity, appearing on Meet the Press and sparring with Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert. His opponent, Sharpe James, who seemed untouchable in 2002, is now in a federal prison, serving time for corruption.
And after three years of Mayor Booker, Newark seems to be changing as well. The economy is still suffering, but the murder rate is down 36%, shootings are down 41% and auto thefts are down 26%. New affordable housing is being built, and parks have been refurbished.
It’s interesting to think about changes to the national political scene as well. I remember when I was doing press for Street Fight I would often describe Cory as part of the new generation of African-American leaders — a group that included Harold Ford and a freshman Senator named Barack Obama. Sometimes, back then, I’d have to spell “Barack” for people who weren’t familiar with him.
Cory no longer has the chance to be “America’s first black president” —something his supporters used to talk and dream about. But he was the co-chair of Obama’s New Jersey campaign, and I know he’s pretty happy that the idea of any black president has moved so quickly from a wild-eyed dream to a matter of fact.
Curry’s newest film, Racing Dreams, won the prize for Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival this year where it was also runner up for the Audience Award. It is scheduled to be released theatrically in March.