I've always been fascinated by elections — and by election films. Going behind the scenes to watch the strategizing, crisis management, and spin-doctoring, documentaries such as Primary, The War Room, and A Perfect Candidate taught me more about the democratic process than I ever learned in civics class.
Yet all of those documentaries followed national, mass-media elections. In 2001, I became interested in the mayoral election shaping up in Newark, New Jersey, and I began to wonder what it's like behind the scenes of a local, urban race, where high-priced media consultants are replaced by foot soldiers, fighting door-to-door.
I had gotten to know Newark ten years earlier, when I'd taken time off from college to set up a literacy project there, and I had fallen in love with the city's unvarnished combination of toughness and warmth. At that time, Mayor Sharpe James had been in his second term, and in 2001, he was going for his fifth. In 32 years, James had never lost a race and was widely considered the most powerful politician in New Jersey — a king-maker whose support had put governors and US Senators into office.
But there was buzz about his challenger, Cory Booker, whom people were touting as potentially "the first black President of the United States" (a bit much, I thought, to say about a 32-year-old, first-term city councilman.)
Two dynamic and charismatic candidates, from different generations and widely different backgrounds — what would happen when they got into a ring together? I bought a camera and spent the next five months finding out.
At first, I focused on the many local issues under debate: downtown development, school reform and vouchers, community policing, and housing. But I soon discovered that each of these issues was complex enough to warrant its own film, and that — as the pollsters were reporting — ultimately this election would turn less on the question of who had the best housing strategy and more on broader themes: racial authenticity, insider vs. outsider, experience vs. change. (This is not unique to Newark — most elections are decided by such intangibles.)
Among these, it was the racial issues that seemed most important and universal to me. After spending a day editing the scene in which Newarkers ask whether Booker's academic pedigree (he is a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate) makes him "less black," I turned on the TV and saw Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic Convention attacking "the slander that says a black child with a book is acting white."
Issues of race seem crucial to politics at this moment and to the future of our country, and our racial attitudes are more powerful and complicated than most of us usually admit. I hope Street Fight encourages people to look at those attitudes closely and honestly and to discuss them with one another. I also hope the film will encourage viewers to pay close attention when politicians — of any ethnicity — use race as a wedge.
I also hope the film will remind us that America's democratic system can not run on autopilot. A healthy democracy "does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability." It requires vigilance and active participation — from our media and from our citizens.
Thank you for watching the film,