Watch a full report on how Cory Booker is using an Oscar-nominated documentary in his presidential race on CNN’s The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer at 5 p.m. ET.
As he introduces himself to voters on the 2020 campaign trail, Sen. Cory Booker has a powerful tool most others don’t: an Oscar-nominated documentary.
“Street Fight” chronicles Booker’s 2002 underdog race for mayor of Newark against longtime incumbent Sharpe James and his political machine – a bid that he lost in a stinging defeat.
Now, more than a decade after its original release date, the film has become a key part of Booker’s playbook as he looks to build support in his campaign for president.
In an email the day after Booker’s launch last month, his team encouraged supporters to “check out ‘Street Fight.’” On the campaign trail, a plug for the film has become a regular feature of Booker’s stump speech.
Booker isn’t alone in promoting the documentary. On a recent morning in Iowa, Booker headlined an event for a local state Senate candidate, Eric Giddens — who, as it turned out, was a fan of the film.
“I watched that years ago before I ran for school board here in Cedar Falls, and it inspired me to go for it and put myself out there in a way that I hadn’t really done at that point,” Giddens told Booker, with a crowd of supporters looking on.
“If you haven’t seen that film, people in the room,” Giddens added, turning his focus back to the crowd, “I recommend it. It’s incredible.”
‘We were pretty much all in after that’
“Street Fight” is far from the first or last political documentary of its kind. It’s an heir to “The War Room,” the D.A. Pennebaker film that chronicled Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for president with fly-on-the-wall footage. A more recent example, “Mitt,” offered a humanizing portrait of Mitt Romney during his 2008 and 2012 presidential bids.
Still, it’s unusual that a presidential hopeful would begin his race with such a film credit — and in this Democratic primary, there are two such candidates.
“Running With Beto,” which follows former Rep. Beto O’Rourke during his unsuccessful Senate campaign in 2018, debuted at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin this month to rave reviews. It will begin airing in May on HBO.
Booker’s 2002 campaign is not nearly as fresh in the minds of Democratic voters as O’Rourke’s – if they even know about it in the first place. The New Jersey senator still intends to leverage it for his presidential bid, though.
Part of the appeal of “Street Fight,” Booker believes, is the “purity” it depicts – of “a young man trying to make a difference in the world” against powerful forces and steep odds.
Booker and his allies also hope “Street Fight” will answer two questions central to his candidacy that could very well make it or break it: Is he tough enough to take on Trump? And is this guy for real?
For Lynn Rankin, the film satisfied both concerns.
Rankin, an Iowa neurologist and would-be caucusgoer, had supported former Vice President Joe Biden in the past, but wanted to take measure of the new crop of candidates. She attended a Booker event in Des Moines last month, during his first swing through the state as a candidate.
“I really didn’t know much of anything about Cory Booker,” Rankin said, “except that he was from Newark and senator.”
At the event, however, Booker urged the crowd to watch “Street Fight” – and Rankin took him up on it, later screening the film at home with her husband and college-aged daughter.
“We were pretty much all in after that,” she said. Rankin now plans to volunteer for Booker’s campaign in Iowa.
Incidentally, Booker faced some of the same questions and challenges in his first race for mayor as he does today, albeit in a different context.
Raised in the suburbs and educated at Stanford, Oxford and Yale, Booker’s rivals raised questions about his motives and authenticity in moving to the inner city of Newark and running for office there. It wasn’t a subtle jab: the Democratic incumbent, James, ran on the slogan “The Real Deal.”
Booker’s former campaign manager Van Parish recalled the narrative: “There’s no way this guy can be all the things that he says is.”
“…The irony and the disappointment and the challenge and the frustration that he had was, ‘How do I prove to you who I am?’”
Booker was challenged to run a positive campaign against a rival who used brazen intimidation tactics and offensive attacks – in one instance, questioning Booker’s racial identity and using a homophobic slur – designed to stoke division.
“We were running against a guy who saw that this was a new way and was very intimidated by it,” Parish said. “So he turned to the thing that he knew best, which was bullying, intimidation – a lot of the themes that we see today.”
In a memorable scene in the film, Booker wrestles with how to respond to a negative attack by James.
“I’m not going to lose this race because we’re afraid to punch Sharpe in the nose,” Booker says in the scene. “I just think that there’s a way to do it with dignity.”
Marshall Curry, the filmmaker behind “Street Fight,” said he believes that scene “encapsulates Cory really well.”
“He understands that politics are about struggle and they’re about pushing back and fighting and but he also has this kind of fundamental idealism about people, and kind of natural decency,” Curry said. “I don’t think he likes to fight….He’d much prefer to convert people than to than to knock them down.”
As in 2002, Booker has pledged to run a relentlessly positive and unifying campaign for president – but, he has stressed, not to the exclusion of being politically tough.
“There is nobody in this race tougher than me,” Booker has said, pointing to his first race for mayor.
“If (Booker) ends up running against Donald Trump, the things that he’s learned from running against Sharpe James are gonna come in handy,” said Curry, “because those two guys are are very similar characters.”
‘This is the kind of campaign I love’
Booker likes to say that he earned his B.A. from Stanford, but his Ph.D from the streets of Newark, a nod to his political education in Brick City, including his 2002 campaign for mayor, that’s now informing his presidential campaign.
“I’m a retail political guy. You win elections by going door to door, handshake to handshake, standing in living rooms. In many ways, this was the best training ground for what I’m going now,” Booker told CNN last week, during a campaign swing through South Carolina.
“This is the kind of campaign that I love.”
But Booker can’t knock on every door in a national election, even in a state like Iowa that puts a premium on retail politics.
“Street Fight” might be his best substitute.
“I think his team feels like, if we can just get people to meet him through that film and to see him before there were television cameras everywhere, when he was 32 and an unknown city councilman, just spend 90 minutes with him and see what he was like, that you will start to see him today in a different way,” Curry said.
“It becomes, I’m sure they think, the equivalent of him going and knocking on your door and having a conversation with you about what’s really in his heart and who he really is.”
That concept isn’t exactly new. During the 1996 Republican primary, Lamar Alexander’s campaign sent 10,000 VHS tapes to New Hampshire voters, featuring a 12-minute video about the candidate.
But a documentary, over which the candidate has no editorial control, is different and arguably more powerful.
Speaking with CNN, Booker joked that “there are some scenes I wish I could take out” of “Street Fight.” Still, the film presents an overwhelmingly positive view of Booker. In its original review of the film, the New York Times dubbed it “a 90-minute valentine” to Booker.
Jerry Crawford, a veteran Iowa Democratic operative who has been informally advising Booker, was first made aware of the film by his son a few years ago. After he watched it, he was sold – and began to spread the word.
“I sort of made everyone at my office watch it,” Crawford said with a laugh.
Booker’s candidacy seems to be reviving interest in “Street Fight.” Although Netflix does not disclose its viewing data, Curry says he has seen an uptick in views through Amazon, iTunes and his own website.
“It’s a heck of a lot more than three years ago,” Curry said. When Booker makes news, Curry added, he watches the numbers spike.
Booker has touted “Street Fight” as an example of how to run a relentlessly positive, unifying campaign and win.
But Booker’s 2002 campaign ended in defeat —”a really profoundly painful moment,” Booker said on The Axe Files podcast in 2007.
Such early losses have been key benchmarks for other politicians who have risen to national prominence, helping them to learn and adapt.
Barack Obama’s unsuccessful primary challenge of US Rep. Bobby Rush in 2000 proved to be a formative lesson for the up-and-coming politician, Obama reflected later.
“In retrospect, there was very little chance of me winning that race,” Obama, then a US senator, told The New York Times in 2007. “That was a good lesson — that you should never be too impressed with your own ideas if your name recognition in a congressional district is only eight or whatever it was.”
But unlike Obama, Booker doesn’t seem to have taken many lessons from his 2002 loss or reworked his approach to campaigning.
Instead, he simply waited – before coming back to win resoundingly in 2006. Weeks before Election Day, James – who was under scrutiny from federal investigators and would later go to prison for fraud — withdrew from the race, leaving open a path for Booker to win against a state senator. Ultimately, Booker didn’t have to change; Newark did.
“He is remarkably the same from the beginning to the end of that film, and the time that I’ve spent with him now, I’m also struck by how similar he is 18 years later, 17 years later,” Curry said.
“In fact, he makes some of identically the same jokes that he made in 2002.”
Now, a “Street Fight” sequel might be in the works. Curry is chewing on the idea, and he has already shot some footage of Booker, including on his campaign’s launch day.
For his part, Booker says he “(feels) a lot of the same energy” in this race “as when I was running for city council and mayor.”
“In many ways I feel that I’m still that guy — trying to deal with a very big, challenging, crowded field, with a very larger-than-life character as president of the United States,” Booker said. “…And the strategy is the same. Go directly to people, let them feel the honesty of my spirit and my heart.”