Documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry has been a friend of Tribeca since he screened his first film, Street Fight, at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival. The film followed the (unsuccessful) mayoral challenge by a young Newark City Councilman, Cory Booker, and Street Fight went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. (After it aired on PBS, Street Fight also earned an Emmy nomination.)
Curry was back at Tribeca this year with his latest film, Racing Dreams, where it was named Best Documentary Feature, so he was fresh on our minds when we noticed ads for the new Sundance Channel series, Brick City, popping up around town. As the series reads somewhat as a companion piece to Street Fight, we asked Curry to update us on Newark and (now Mayor) Booker.
Documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry
In 2002, I met a young city councilman from Newark, NJ, named Cory Booker. I remember being struck by his energy, his earnestness, and his story. His parents were civil rights veterans who had integrated the suburban neighborhood where he grew up. He had gone to Stanford and Yale Law, and was a Rhodes Scholar—and then he had moved into one of Newark’s roughest projects and decided to get involved in politics.
When I met him he was only 32, but he was preparing to run for mayor against the wily and charismatic four-term incumbent, Sharpe James, who ran Newark’s political machine.
I’d never made a documentary before, but this seemed like a story worth pursuing: two black Democrats from different generations and different backgrounds, facing off in a city known for its bare-knuckles electioneering. So I bought a camera and started shooting.
A few years later, having learned quite a bit about urban politics—the corruption, the intimidation, the race baiting—I finished the documentary, Street Fight. It was launched at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award, and went on to play on PBS and around the world.
A couple weeks ago I was back in Newark for the premiere of a new documentary series about Booker called Brick City (on the Sundance Channel), and it made me reflect on how much has changed since Street Fight.
Cory, the upstart city councilman, is now Mayor Booker. Four years after being defeated in the election I followed, Cory ran again and was elected in the biggest landslide in the history of the city. He’s become something of a celebrity, appearing on Meet the Press and sparring with Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert. His opponent, Sharpe James, who seemed untouchable in 2002, is now in federal prison, serving time for corruption.
And after three years of Mayor Booker, Newark seems to be changing as well. The economy is still suffering, but the murder rate is down 36%, shootings are down 41%, and auto thefts are down 26%. New affordable housing is being built and parks have been refurbished.
It’s interesting to think about changes to the national political scene as well. I remember when I was doing press for Street Fight, I would often describe Cory as part of the new generation of African-American leaders—a group that included Harold Ford and a freshman Senator named Barack Obama. Sometimes, back then, I’d have to spell “Barack” for people who weren’t familiar with him.
Cory no longer has the chance to be “America’s first black President”—something his supporters used to talk and dream about. But I know that—as co-chair of Obama’s NJ campaign last year—he’s pretty happy that the idea of any black president has moved so quickly from a wild-eyed dream to a matter of fact.
To learn more about Street Fight, visit the official site.
After screening at the Hamptons International Film Festival this weekend, Curry's latest film, Racing Dreams, will have its Middle Eastern Premiere at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival later this month.
A U.S. theatrical release is scheduled for March.
In other news, Cory Booker has a tremendous presence on Twitter. Check him out.
The kids from Racing Dreams rocked the red carpet at TFF 2009: