Street Fight

PBS Premiere: July 5, 2005Check the broadcast schedule »

Ask the Filmmaker

Joseph in Colorado asks: Beyond what was shown in the film, did you take any formal action against the Newark Police or the Mayor in response to their violations of your First Amendment rights?

Marshall Curry: No, I didn't. In the final days before the election I spoke with the ACLU, who offered to help by getting a restraining order against the officers who were interfering with me. In the end I decided that going to court, working on briefs, etc. would be too much of a distraction for me. I just wanted to focus on shooting the film, and during those last few days, I was shooting around the clock.

Jessica in Pennsylvania asks: Since your documentary has been publicly aired, have you received any notices from the Newark Police Department?

Curry: No. Most Newark Police officers are brave, public servants who work every day to protect the city. The ones who are shown in the film abusing their power (many of whom work in the Mayor's security detail) are the minority, and I think they realize that anything that they might do would only attract more attention to the film. Similarly, the Mayor's office has said very little about the film publicly, however the day after broadcast an anonymous mailing (which included a letter from Mayor James) went out around the city comparing me with Hitler.

Wendy in New Jersey asks: Why do you think the media in NJ didn't pick up on the story of the behavior and apparent paranoia of the James campaign? Were there ever any stories that questioned some of the tactics, such as the attempted detention of a Booker supporter at the debate?

Curry: New York City is just 12 miles from Newark and sucks up most of the media attention in the area. The overwhelming majority of television news, radio news, and newspapers focus on New York politics, leaving Newark in a kind of media shadow where city hall can operate without much scrutiny. There are exceptions to this; the Star Ledger wrote a number of stories about the tactics, and during the election the New York Times ran a front page story titled something like, "The Day of the Political Machine is Alive and Well in Newark" (which appears in the film's montage of newspapers.)

Bobbie in Texas asks: Why haven't Sharpe James and his backers been investigated for illegal intimidation of the citizens of Newark who don't support him? It sounds to me like the attorney general or someone ought to be investigating him (especially after watching this film).

Curry: After losing the election, the Booker campaign considered filing a number of complaints, but in the end decided that it would make them appear to be spoil-sports (the opposition would say, "you lost the election so now you are trying to win in court..."). Instead they decided to focus on winning the next election. One of the challenges to investigation is that much of the intimidation involves unfair enforcement of laws rather than outright criminal behavior. For example, the carwash owner whose carwash was shut down the day after he hosted a coffee for Booker did, in fact, have a violation -- it's just that it had been overlooked for years until he supported Booker. And as the former head of Newark code enforcement explains in the film, "You can go to any business in this city and find a code violation." I will be curious to see whether the state and federal government get more involved in watching over next year's election.

Jon in Massachusetts: I'm not surprised about the way that Sharpe's staff and Sharpe himself reacted to your presence. They obviously have something to hide. At one point in the film you are enumerating all of the stereotypes the James campaign is pinning on Cory Booker. Then you say something curious: "and these are the things they say on the record." What was your impression of what was going on behind the scenes in the James campaign? Also, what do you see as the similarities and differences in the way the James campaign was run and the way the Republicans ran the 2004 presidential campaign? I'm especially interested in your comments as it pertains to the before mentioned employment of stereotypes.

Curry: In addition to the things that the James campaign was saying on the record to reporters, there was an even more extreme "whisper campaign" that was taking place on the ground. Mayor James is a remarkably skilled politician who has never lost an election in 32 years, and he generally knows when to be charming and folksy (e.g. making the speech in the Portuguese section of Newark) and when to be crass (calling Booker "white" and a "snake" at small gatherings where there were no press.)

To answer your second question, I think one of the main lessons of the Newark election is that a lie told over and over can be very powerful -- particularly when it is not challenged by the press or by a seasoned, aggressive campaign. We were editing the film during the 2004 presidential election, and when I first heard the Republican attacks on Kerry's war record I thought to myself, "Wow, this really seems familiar." However one might feel about Kerry's positions, it is indisputable that he was a war hero who put his life on the line answering his country's call, and to question that seemed akin to questioning whether Cory Booker is "really black."

Deyanira in New Jersey asks: Will you cover the campaign for 2006 and will you scoop the Latino issues that will be very present in 2006?

Curry: I started shooting "Street Fight" in January of 2002 and finished editing in April of 2005. That's a long haul, and I'm ready to move onto something else. So I don't have plans to make another complete film about the 2006 election. However, I might do some shooting in Newark during the upcoming election to include as a mini-feature on the DVD. (For more on getting a DVD, check out

Diana in Missouri asks: Would you cover a presidential election?

Curry: I love politics and wouldn't rule out following a presidential election some day, but I am eager to get going on my next project which will chronicle a multi-racial family that my wife and I are friends with.

Kevin in Louisiana asks: Do you have an e-mail address where I can e-mail Cory Booker?

Curry: You can email Cory Booker through his website, Mayor Sharpe James can be contacted through the NJ State Legislature.

Tilly in Virginia asks: As someone who has made a short doc, I was wondering with all the red tape that documentarians face, how you were able to get some scenes like the one where Mayor James' campaign manager confesses that his boss is a difficult person to work for onto film? I imagine you consulted lawyers but I imagine it was still not an easy thing to accomplish.

Curry: My company and PBS both consulted with lawyers, carefully vetting the film before airing it. In most cases, the fact that someone is a public figure (as James' press spokesman was) gives a documentary filmmaker more leeway, since courts realize that it is crucial to have a robust press examining our government. (As an aside, a number of people have asked whether that scene was shot with a hidden camera and the answer is no. The camera was in plain sight, sitting on my shoulder.)

Lou in Texas asks: First off, I really enjoyed "Street Fight." It opened my eyes to some issues I was not aware of. You mentioned getting started making documentaries by doing interactive documentaries. I'm interested in documentary film and was wondering how / what ways would you recommend getting started (for a person with no experience)?

Curry: I think the best thing to do is to get a camera and start shooting. I shot over 200 hours of footage with this film, and my first 50 hours are a lot worse than my last 50 hours. I also read a number of books on documentary filmmaking -- the classic intro is Michael Rabiger's Directing the Documentary. In addition, I watch a ton of documentaries and pay attention to the way that the stories are put together, and I have learned a lot from friends who make documentaries, who have shared tips with me. Classes can also help with the basics -- perhaps there is a college near you that offers an "intro to documentary production" class. But, again, the most important way to learn is to get out and DO it and then study the result and get out and do it again.