19
Feb
2012
It's Been Real
Street Fight
Jordan
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"In Newark, elections are won and lost in the streets."-Marshall Curry

"My parents told me, "˜to he who much is given, much is expected.'"-Cory Booker

Politics is a bloody business. There's no question about it. A lot of coverage of politics uses sports analogies, referring to politics as a "game" or a "horse race" and while I'm guilty of that myself (and also guilty of enjoying observing politics in terms of political "wins" and "losses") I have to admit that this is at least slightly unnerving if not completely fucked up. If politics is a game, it's a game where lives are on the line, and where every vote can mean that thousands of people pay more or less in taxes, get more or less support from their government, or gain or lose freedoms that may be vital to the way we live our lives on a daily basis. If politics is a game, it's the most serious game in town, and you enter into it not just at your own risk, but at the risk of every person you endeavor to represent.

Cory Booker seems to take that responsibility very seriously; he's a man that knows the job he has and understands its importance. When he was a councilman in Newark (as he is throughout Street Fight, which we'll get to in a moment) he lived in Brick Towers, a project in the poorest area of his district (and can be seen in the film remarking that if politicians had to live in the worst neighborhoods they represented, things would turn around much quicker). Though his political prominence could have lead him to ascend quickly (he was offered a position heading the White House Office of Urban Affairs Policy when Obama was inaugurated and it is rumored that he was asked to consider a run for Governor of New Jersey), he has turned offers down, citing his commitment to Newark, a city that has put its faith in him.



As I see it, Cory Booker is very nearly a saint, a dedicated and tireless public servant with the best interest of his constituents, not himself at heart (and, you heard it here first: I believe Booker will one day be President of the United States. If the time ever comes, he will almost certainly have my vote). In short, and to paraphrase The Dark Knight, I believe in Cory Booker. And it's clear that Marshall Curry, who directed Street Fight, does as well.

Street Fight follows Booker's first run for Mayor of Newark in 2002, a race in which he was competing against four-term incumbent Sharpe James. Throughout the film, James' corruption and shameless deception of the electorate are apparent, and Booker has to fight hard every day just to keep the public from believing James' lies (among them: that Cory is a white Republican, that he is backed by the right wing, that he is Jewish, and that he is a member of the KKK).

Unlike The War Room, Street Fight has no pretensions to objectivity. This is the story of an underdog, told by a filmmaker who clearly believes that Booker should win the election and clearly holds the opinion that his treatment during the election was unfair, documenting several times the illegal actions taken by Sharpe and his cronies (including tearing down Booker signs in violation of a federal injunction, closing down businesses with Booker signs in front of them, detaining Booker supporters at campaign events, demoting Booker supporters within Newark city government and blatantly lying about facts available in the public record). Part of this pro-Booker bias likely stems from the almost complete lack of access Curry was granted to Sharpe James; in fact, despite the campaign ostensibly giving Curry permission to film, he is often escorted off-premises and his camera is often grabbed, blocked, or once even broken when he tries to film James on the trail. The bias in the film is also likely due to that treatment of Curry himself, as it must have been easy to begin rooting for Booker's success after being so transparently mistreated by the James campaign.



Where D.A. Pennebaker insists on no narration and no interviews with his subject, Curry narrates the entire film, often telling of his own personal experiences in the process, and interviews many Booker staffers, citizens of Newark and city employees. It's hard to call this approach inferior to Pennebaker's; as I said last time, comparing two documentarians with different approaches would be like comparing apples and oranges. Pennebaker has his (very high) standards for what constitutes a documentary and Curry has his as well. Different though they may be, it is patently unfair to hold one film up to another filmmaker's standards. Rather, it seems more appropriate to examine the success of each filmmaker at achieving his or her own stated goals.

This is not always easy. Marshall Curry, like most documentarians, has never released a manifesto and doesn't argue for documentaries to be made in a certain way. While I respect D.A. Pennebaker's integrity and willingness to stick to his principles, I can't say that I necessarily agree that his form of filmmaking always leads to better documentaries. Nor can I say that every documentarian should clearly lay out a set of rules for themselves and then stick to them throughout their career, lest they be judged as inferior to those that do (that might make experimentation, which I approve of even when it fails, all the rarer in documentaries). Yet, if I had to guess, I would say that in the case of Street Fight, Marshall Curry was hoping to expose the corruption inherent to Newark's political machine under Sharpe James, and to counter that with the saint-like optimism and dedication to the city of Cory Booker. And if that was in fact his goal, then Street Fight is a resounding success, a fascinating look at the inner workings of a flawed but noble campaign and its struggles against an imposing, unethical regime.

Looking at Political Documentary Month, and at both The War Room and Street Fight, a few things become clear. First off, it's obvious that politics is not for the faint of heart and that even the nicest candidates will have to get their hands dirty to find success. It's also clear that political operatives tend to run the show, and are often at least as invested in the success of the campaign as the candidate they work for. Also, campaigning is long, hard work that is not always rewarded. In the early minutes of The War Room, then Governor Clinton looks close to exhaustion, and late in Street Fight, a frustrated Cory Booker faces new accusations by James and angrily, sarcastically says, "I admit it! I'm a tool of the right wing republicans"¦of the Jews, of the Taliban"¦I'm part of the media conspiracy to elect Cory Booker." And then he just puts his head in his hands, exhausted from the expended effort. It's not for nothing that the titles of these films both evoke a battle; politics is blood sport, and these are men in it up to their necks.

Finally, though, and most importantly for our purposes at It's Been Real, it is obvious that there is not just one way to make a documentary, even if you are covering near identical subjects like two elections that grow increasingly competitive. Both Pennebaker and Curry have made great documentaries, and both are successful in their own way, in spite of the fact that one of them breaks nearly all of the rules the other follows. If there is one take away from Political Documentary Month for those of you readers who could care less about the inside baseball (see? Another sports analogy!) of politics, it is this: It's Been Real sets out to "examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms," and what we've seen this month is that even diametrically opposed forms of codumentary can be utilized to create great films and landmarks of the genre. As usual, it's all in the execution.

Read more It's Been Real here

Coming up on It's Been Real:

3/4: Waltz with Bashir

3/18: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

4/1: Exit Through the Gift Shop

4/15: 8: The Mormon Proposition
Tags:
comments powered by Disqus