NEW YORK — How did a self-described “white guy from New York” from a prominent financial family wind up in the wilds of Newark armed only with a brand-new Sony PD 150 camera?
For first-time documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry, all it took was an introduction to Cory Booker, a rising young African-American star in the Democratic Party, from his supersocial big brother, Boykin. “I thought Cory would make a good subject,” explains Boykin, an active fund-raiser for the party, at a screening he cohosted for his little brother along with the musician Moby and Oprah cohort Gayle King Wednesday night. The resulting film, “Street Fight,” will air on PBS tonight.
Booker’s story is enough to pique interest even in the most politically dispassionate. The son of civil rights activists, the Stanford University football player, Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School grad moved, by choice, to the Newark projects in 1997. The next year, at 28, he landed a seat on the city council. Four years later, in 2002, he mounted what ultimately was a failed bid to unseat the entrenched mayor, Sharpe James, in one of the most hotly contested local elections in recent memory. “I was curious about this golden boy that everyone was talking about,” explains Curry of Booker’s run for mayor. “They were saying he would be the first black president. I bought a camera and days later was in Newark.”
Once he gained his subject’s trust, Curry had almost unlimited access to Booker’s campaign. “I told him, ‘How great would it be if we had Clinton’s first campaign documented?'”
It wasn’t his first time in the embattled city. In 1991, while a junior at Swarthmore, Curry started a literacy program there. “A lot of people went to Africa or the Middle East,” he says. “But I thought, Newark is right here and has so many needs.” Indeed, the Newark he shows is a veritable wasteland of boarded-up houses, broken sidewalks and shuttered businesses.
His finished film is every bit as provocative as a Michael Moore documentary, with its villain as Mayor James, who wildly accuses his opponent of secretly being a Republican, white, gay and backed by “the Jews.” Curry’s camera captures Newark policemen harassing himself and Booker’s staff, all implicitly at James’ behest. “I was afraid,” Curry admits of one scene, in which a cop breaks the microphone on his camera after a press event. “When that happened, I thought, ‘If this can happen with members of the press around in broad daylight, I don’t know where the boundaries are.'”
But when Booker lost, Curry thought the film was lost, too. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this movie is ruined.’ But when we started watching the scenes where the mayor confronted me, I thought, ‘That’s the movie.'” Back in his Carroll Gardens studio, Curry took on the task of editing his 200 hours of footage down to an 82-minute film, which friend Rory Kennedy signed on to produce. It wound up winning the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The story isn’t over, however: Booker hasn’t quit. He will be running again in 2006, and since the film was made he’s garnered support from celebs such as Oprah, Ben Affleck and Steven Spielberg.
Curry never felt like he could quit, either. “Newarkers said to me, ‘When this is all done, you will go back home, and we will be the ones who live here.’ It drove home how important the struggle was for freedom and democracy.”