Can Cities Really Be as Bad as They Look in the Movies?

NEAL R. PEIRCE

October 28, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

In John Sayles' new movie, ''City of Hope,'' an old Italianmayor named Baci cynically manipulates everyone to line his own pockets.

We see greedy developers, contractors desperate for work, a local prosecutor as venal as the mayor himself, and an idealistic black city councilman about to lose his political innocence.

Two pubescent black kids, masters of foul language, leap on and lambaste a white college professor jogging through a park, then try to beat the rap by falsely accusing him of homosexual advances. The incident becomes a big racial issue in the community.

There's police brutality: an attack on ''faggots'' and a cop who declares, ''If you can't get respect, you settle for fear.''

But later in the film, when a policeman shoots his ex-wife's new lover, the viewer is startled when the cop's buddies refuse to front for him, breaking the cop-on-the-street code of always protecting their own.

For some people, these vignettes are true to city life in the era of Tawana Brawley, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Rodney King and New York City's Donald Manes. For others, the people of the Sayles film are stereotypes and a distorted representation of the people who live in urban America today.

VTC What you have to say for Mr. Sayles is that a lot of his film comes out of real-life experience.

He lived in Albany in the twilight days of the machine of Daniel P. (''Uncle Dan'') O'Connell, who ruled the town into his 90s, and in Atlanta when black political power was rising and ''soulless big money'' was massacring neighborhoods in the name of progress.

Those themes ring through in Mr. Sayles' ''Hudson City,'' a cross of Hoboken and Jersey City. The movie was filmed in Cincinnati and on a tiny-for-today $3 million budget.

''Not too many movies today try to handle the whole city, get into all the camps, armed and not,'' Mr. Sayles told me. ''Tribalism, fear of each other, is a lot of what this movie is about.''

But ''City of Hope,'' which is about ''connecting the dots'' of ostensibly unrelated lives, as the film maker put it, leaves the viewer wondering where the hope is.

The stakes here are bigger than cinema. With television, film provides the strongest images, sometimes the only picture millions of Americans have, of city life in the age of suburbia.

In the '70s, we had Martin Scorsese's ''Mean Streets,'' about small-time thugs in New York's Little Italy, and ''Taxi Driver,'' about a psychotic cab driver who tries to assassinate a presidential candidate.

Today's up-and-coming genre include ''New Jack City'' and ''Boyz 'N the Hood,'' whose young black directors say they carry an anti-gang message. But critics claim these movies glamorize the rawest violence and hatreds in black ghettoes.

Spike Lee, today's most celebrated black film maker, depicts seething caldrons of racial and ethnic tension in urban neighborhoods in movies like ''Do the Right Thing'' and ''Jungle Fever.''

We have apocalypse films such as the ''Blade Runner'' with its view of a future Los Angeles as a bleak and violent place of warring ethnic groups and high-tech, high-firepower cops.

Baltimore has been in the lens of directors who are natives -- John Waters' films focusing on the town's down-and-dirty people; Barry Levinson in ''Avalon'' just this past year.

For millions of Americans, films create powerful city images -- from the San Francisco of ''Dirty Harry'' movies to the New Orleans of ''The Big Easy'' to the Los Angeles of ''Chinatown.''

For Miami, think about ''Scarface'' on the big screen, or bloodstained ''Miami Vice'' on television.

Considering that the predominant images here are guns, drugs, crooks, poverty, hate and racism and general rot, you have to wonder why virtually every major American city has a film office to lure movies and television to do on-location shooting -- cinematic and real.

Of course the productions bring jobs and money, and cities need more of both. But at what price in public image?

Where in films and television are some of the real heroes of today's urban America? I think of the amazing civic entrepreneurs who head community-development corporations, of the dedicated, fervent citizens who work to make homeless shelters homey, havens for battered women humane and health clinics caring.

And, film makers, you ought to know there are some honest developers who care about their cities. There are parents in hard-pressed neighborhoods striving as hard as they know how to raise their kids well. There are thousands of municipal officials who aren't on the take, who are applying high intelligence and commitment to some of the toughest societal problems of our time.

''City of Hope'' and its sister films miss virtually all of these vivid personalities of the real American city. The excuse is that this isn't the medium for legitimate community builders -- that they don't make good drama, don't sell films. Maybe that's right. But it would be refreshing to see a talented film maker try some day.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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