Street Fight

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

Filmmaker Interview

POV: When did you know you had a story?

Marshall Curry: Probably when I met Cory Booker for the first time. I had a sense then that this election was going to be interesting. People were saying he was going to go on to be the first black President of America, which seems to me a ridiculous thing to say about someone who was 32 and had only won one election for city council. But he's a combination of policy wonk and '60s-style activist. He's a Rhodes Scholar and a Yale Law grad, but he lives in the housing projects in Newark. He got an RV one summer and parked it on the worst drug corners in his city and drove away the dealers. I knew there was something compelling about that character. I also knew there was something compelling about the guy who he was taking on, Sharpe James. He's been in power for 32 years; he's never lost an election. And there's a reason for that. I thought there would be an interesting dynamic when these two guys got in the ring together. Learning that there still are political machines that will intimidate citizens, intimidate business owners and use whatever tactics possible to try to keep power was also really interesting.

POV: How did you build trust with the Booker campaign to secure your access?

Curry: Some members of the Booker campaign were very reluctant when I first approached them. They knew how campaigns work, that people say and do things they don't necessarily want to have captured forever on film. So they were a little bit nervous. But eventually I convinced them to give me almost complete access without any control over the final film. I think in time they grew to trust themselves, really, more than me.

I really think it's a credit to the Booker campaign that they would allow somebody to come in and watch them operate with a camera. Some of the things said and done in the film, a campaign wouldn't want to get out. I know Cory's not exactly thrilled with the way he comes across in certain scenes. But I think they believed that on the whole they were doing the right thing, and that they would gain from that.

POV: How did you deal with the setback of the James' campaign refusing to participate in the film?


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Curry: I started out thinking that I would probably spend a majority of my time with Cory and a slightly lesser amount of time with Sharpe James. As the film progressed, I found out that I wasn't going to spend any time with Sharpe James and that he was not interested in participating in the film. At the time, I was extremely disappointed. I thought I didn't have a film anymore. But once we got into the editing room we realized that the moments where Sharpe James didn't want to be filmed were actually some of the more interesting and revealing moments. They spoke a lot about Sharpe James and the way he runs the city. It wasn't just about me and him; it was about him and the rest of the world.

Probably the thing that kept me shooting, even given all the barriers that were thrown up, is stubbornness. I was extremely frustrated by what I saw going on in Newark. And I was extremely frustrated by the way I was being treated. And I thought, "If somebody doesn't want you to tell a story this much, it's probably a story that needs to be told." So I just kind of put my head down and tried to keep doing it.

POV: When did you decide to become a character in the film?

Curry: Originally, I planned on making it a strictly verité film, sort of like The War Room, and you wouldn't see me, you wouldn't hear from me, I would just be a fly on the wall. It was really only when we got into editing that I realized that because of the interactions between me and Sharpe James and his staff, there was no way for me to hide. And so I thought I should just make explicit my point of view and narrate the film. I was a little reluctant to do that because, frankly, I think the interesting story is what's going on in Newark and the characters of Newark — not me. And a lot of times narrated films, particularly first person narration, start to feel a little bit gratuitous. I know often when I watch them I think, "I'm not really interested in the guy who's narrating the film; I just want to watch the film." Hopefully my audience won't feel that way.

POV: Why is this Newark story important for a national audience?

Curry: The first reason is that it calls into question a lot of our assumptions about how democracy works and the current health of our democracy. We have a lot of justifiable pride in our political system, but it's important to realize that it doesn't quite work the way that the framers of the Constitution intended it when it plays out in a lot of places. There are places where our democracy is being subverted, whether it's by machine-level politics or whether it's just the power of a persistent lie in a campaign.

The second component of the film that makes it a national story is the racial dynamics in the election. Both Cory Booker and Sharpe James are African-American. But in the film and in the election James accuses the Ivy League-educated Booker of not being authentically black. It opens up a real question of how we define race in America. What are the characteristics we ascribe to race, and are those appropriate, or acceptable? In the film one Newarker says, "We ask our children to get educated and when they do, we call them white. What are we saying to our children when we do that?" And I think that's an important question to ask.

Another component of the story that is being played out in races around the country is the two generations of African-American leaders. Whether it's Kwame Kilpatrick in Detroit, Harold Ford in Tennessee or Barack Obama in Illinois, there is a generation of African-American leaders who were brought up after the civil rights movement who haven't had to suffer the same way their predecessors suffered, and who also have had opportunities their predecessors didn't have. As that generation starts to take power, in some cases from the previous generation, a lot of interesting dynamics come into play.

POV: Do you think the film would have been different if you were a black filmmaker?

Curry: I'm sure the film would be different. I can't say exactly how. I know that it probably would have impacted the footage because people would have felt differently around me and I would have blended in more to the Newark community. One of the things that surprised me, though, was how little my race seemed to affect so many of the people I spoke with. People were extremely candid with me about deep frustrations within the black community, and between the black and white communities. The candor really surprised me, frankly. I'm also sure that in the editing, in figuring out what issues were interesting to me or what shots to use, my background and race played itself out in my decisions.

POV: What impact do you hope the film will have?

Curry: Because it's so close to New York City, Newark falls in a media shadow, really. New York City sucks up most of the television press in the area, and most of the newspapers' scrutiny. Because of the longstanding lack of scrutiny, a lot of problems have developed. I'm hoping this film will help to shine a light on some of those problems and will get people involved to take some action. I'm hoping people will look carefully at the way democracy works in cities like Newark and hopefully implement reforms to keep incumbents from being able to abuse their power. I'm also hoping it will inspire a discussion about race. The racial issues are complicated and delicate, and they are issues whites and Latinos and blacks and Asians all need to consider carefully and discuss.

POV: What draws you to documentary? And what strengths do you bring to it?

Curry: Well, this is my first feature-length film, but I'd been interested in documentary for a long time before making this. I watch tons of documentaries and I pay careful attention to how they're constructed. I'd also worked for a number of years doing interactive documentaries, the sort of touch-screen computer exhibits you see in museums. And so I worked on how to tell stories using images and sound.

I think probably the strongest things I bring to filmmaking are a stubbornness and an interest in people. I love to just listen and watch. I mean, I could happily watch a security camera at a store. Often during a day I'll see, you know, a guy selling pretzels or an argument that somebody's having on a stoop and I'll think, "Oh I wish I had my camera, I wish I could capture this moment." There's something about people being people and interacting that can be so beautiful and emotional when it's framed by a camera. That desire to capture people as they are, and the stubbornness to keep going when they don't necessarily want you to capture them being who they are, are key.