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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

'Street Fight': Documentary Stunner Opens at IFC Center

Riding the wave stirred by Confederate States of America and Transamerica, IFC Center reportedly just had one of its best weekends yet since opening last June. And if that were not a big enough relief to Dolan, Vanco and the whole Sixth Avenue Posse, things only stand to improve today as the theater opens Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight.

Newark Mayor Sharpe James, set to duke it out in Marshall Curry’s doc Street Fight (Photo: The Star Ledger, used with permission)

While viewing Curry’s riveting film last week, it occurred to me that this could absolutely be the dark horse nominee come March 5. In chronicling Newark’s 2002 mayoral race between relative newcomer Cory Booker and Jersey’s reigning machine-politics king Sharpe James, Curry captures a system imploded by racism, corruption, lies and at least a few physical altercations. Perhaps more shockingly, Street Fight reflects the assured work of a first-time feature filmmaker–a guy who quit his job, bought a camera and followed the campaign with his crew of one just to see what would happen. A complete and total hunch.
The result was near-total access to Booker and a fairly breathtaking stonewalling job by the incumbent James. “Lots of the time while I was making the film–I’d say most of the time–I thought, ‘I’m wasting my time,’ ” Curry told The Reeler earlier this week. ” ‘This is crazy. What am I doing here? I’m not getting anything interesting. Nothing’s happening.’ And when the mayor kept me from shooting, most of the time, I thought, ‘He’s ruining the film. I can’t make an election film about one character. I’ve gotta have access, and by keeping me from having access, he’s ruining the film.’
“Really, it wasn’t until we got into the editing room that I started looking at that footage, and it would just give me a stomachache every time I watched it,” Curry continued. “Then I thought about it and said, ‘This is some important stuff.’ These are the most revealing scenes and the most exciting scenes in the film, that tell you a lot about bloody-knuckle politcs and the lack of scruntiny of politcal machines.”

Barely thinking twice, Curry (right) filmed Newark business owners complaining of harrassment by city police and code enforcers for displaying Booker’s campaign signs in their windows. He features footage of James impugning Booker’s blackness (both are African-American) and a TV interview in which the mayor actually calls Booker a Jew. Then there is Booker dealing with the aftermath of his chief of staff being caught at a notorious Newark strip joint, and the busloads of Philadelphians bussed into Newark on Election Day to campaign for the mayor whose name they did not even know.
It is all kind of harrowing, to be honest–sort of a companion piece to Rachel Boynton’s upcoming campaign doc, Our Brand is Crisis, but all the more scary if only because it can and did happen here. If you do not know who won the race (and you should not look it up if you do not), Street Fight boasts a tension typically reserved for sports documentaries like Murderball (against which Curry’s film is competing, coincidentally, for the documentary Oscar).
Again, the only thing more unbelievable than the election itself is Curry’s execution of its coverage. “I would watch other documentaries and write down how long each scene lasted,” he told me, namechecking films like The War Room, Lalee’s Kin and The Perfect Candidate. “What happened in the scene, what role it played in terms of creating tension and releasing tension. And after a really tense scene, you have to have a funny scene, and you have to have an overall arc that has to last this long, and in the overall arc there are these little arcs that keep people watching. All of that stuff was massive trial and error, just trying to figure out when you can do jump-cut and when you can’t do a jump-cut. All of those rules that an experienced filmmaker would know, I basically figured out through trial and error and just watching it and watching it and saying, ‘It’s still not working.’ And then, “Yeah, now it’s working. I got it.’ ”
Indeed–Curry got it. And I cannot recommend it enough.
(Curry photo by Angela Jimenez)

3 Responses to “'Street Fight': Documentary Stunner Opens at IFC Center”

  1. Bruce says:

    Mayor James is notorious for this type of behavior. He’s usually more media savvy than this.

  2. Angelus21 says:

    I bet everyone that does a docu has the same thought in his/her head. That what is this for anyway? Are we accomplishing anything?

  3. NANCY says:


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“Ten years ago at Telluride, I said on a panel that theatrical distribution was dying. It seemed obvious to me. I was surprised how many in the audience violently objected: ‘People will always want to go to the movies!’ That’s true, but it’s also true that theatrical cinema as we once knew it has died. Theatrical cinema is now Event Cinema, just as theatrical plays and musical performances are Events. No one just goes to a movie. It’s a planned occasion. Four types of Event Cinema remain.
1. Spectacle (IMAX-style blockbusters)
2. Family (cartoon like features)
3. Horror (teen-driven), and
4. Film Club (formerly arthouse but now anything serious).

There are isolated pockets like black cinema, romcom, girl’s-night-out, seniors, teen gross-outs, but it’s primarily those four. Everything else is TV. Now I have to go back to episode five of ‘Looming Tower.'”
~ Paul Schrader

“Because of my relative candor on Twitter regarding why I quit my day job, my DMs have overflowed with similar stories from colleagues around the globe. These peeks behind the curtains of film festivals, venues, distributors and funding bodies weren’t pretty. Certain dismal patterns recurred (and resonated): Boards who don’t engage with or even understand their organization’s artistic mission and are insensitive to the diverse neighborhood in which their organization’s venue is located; incompetent founders and/or presidents who create only obstacles, never solutions; unduly empowered, Trumpian bean counters who chip away at the taste and experiences that make organizations’ cultural offerings special; expensive PR teams that don’t bring to the table a bare-minimum familiarity with the rich subcultural art form they’re half-heartedly peddling as “product”; nonprofit arts organizations for whom art now ranks as a distant-second goal behind profit.”
~ Eric Allen Hatch