By Sam Collings-Wells (@Sam_cw_)
‘And they hide their faces / And they hide their eyes / Cause the city is dyin’/ And they don’t know why’.
These lyrics from Randy Newman’s 1977 ‘Baltimore’—later made famous by Nina Simone’s justly celebrated cover—perfectly captured the spirit urban life during the mid-1970s. Historians would later pinpoint the variety of forces that were killing America’s cities: the flight of industry to the suburbs; increased manufacturing competition from emerging economies in the Global South; a deeply racist housing market which served to entrap people of colour within these decaying urban cores.
Yet as Newman’s lyric suggests, for many Americans the causes of urban decay were far more nebulous.
In seeking out explanations, some might have turned to the intense contemporary debate amongst sociologists, urbanists, and politicians. For others, a rather more seductive interpretation of the urban crisis was emerging, one which they could absorb from the comfort of a suburban movie theatre.
Whilst American cinema has always displayed a fascination with urban spaces, the sheer quantity of films shot in cities during the 1970s was unprecedented. There were the hardboiled cop dramas of Dirty Harry (1971) and The French Connection (1971), neo-noir thrillers such as Chinatown (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), and the voyeuristic forays into urban subcultures taken by Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Panic in Needle Park (1972). All were set against the backdrop of crumbling tenements and rubbish-strewn back-alleys, populated with pimps, prostitutes and drug pushers.
Far from simply providing an intriguing setting for the action to unfold, these seedy locations were integral to the interpretation of the urban crisis being offered by the films. The decaying built environment was presented as a consequence of the deviant cultures of its (mostly black) inhabitants. This was particularly the case with depictions of the so-called ‘ghetto,’where inner-city poverty was inexorably linked to a ‘culture of poverty’that allegedly entrapped its residents in a cycle of self-inflicted deprivation.
Historians would later uncover the interrelationship between the affluence of white suburbs and the impoverishment of people of colour within the urban core. Yet during the 1970s Hollywood elided these structural interlinkages by transforming the ghetto into a ‘hostile territory’analogous to a foreign country. This not only reinforced a pernicious contemporary narrative that inner-cities were somehow less authentically ‘American’ than their lily-white suburbs, but also obscured white people’s complicity in the forces reshaping the metropolitan space.
Hollywood’s isolation of the ghetto in this way was hardly surprising; the industry had cut its teeth bringing to life another ‘nation-within-a-nation’—the Indian country of the Western. Crime films in the 1970s drew on many of these narrative tropes, transforming America’s inner-cities into a kind of urban Wild-West teeming with criminals and Black Power radicals. ‘No Cowboys, No Indians, No Calvary to the Rescue, Only a Cop’ reads the tag-line of the revealingly titled Fort Apache, The Bronx (1982).
As in the classical Western, the pacification of these ‘foreign’ territories required the explosive violence of a skilled marksman. For gunsling cowboys such as Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, the transition from Monument Valley to the Bronx was relatively straightforward, and during the 1970s both would trade in their six-shooters to police the unruly populations of America’s inner-cities. Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971) in particular heralded a cycle of cop films which presented lone police officers’ heroic attempts to fight back the tide of racially coded urban disorders.
It is important to note that this was not the only cinematic interpretation of the urban crisis on offer. The splintering of Hollywood’s studio system in the late 1960s meant that the American film industry no longer spoke with a single voice. If Dirty Harry sought to rehabilitate audiences perceptions of urban policing, Blaxploitation films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) began with acts of visceral police brutality. Catering specifically to the black audiences that still frequented downtown movie houses, the Blaxploitation cycle offered a brief flowering of a more critical perspective on America’s urban crisis—bringing to the fore issues of racial discrimination, blocked opportunities, and Black Power-orientated community empowerment.
Historians need to interrogate these kinds of cinematic debates, for it was here—as well through other media such as music and television—that understandings of the urban crisis were ultimately forged. Today, the cluster of forces reshaping the metropolitan space are being mediated through streaming services like Netflix, as well as viral clips shared on social media. Spike Lee’s recent Netflix adaptation of his She’s Gotta Have It opens with photographs vividly illustrating the gentrification of the Fort Green neighbourhood of Brooklyn, whilst the dynamics underpinning this process are increasingly crystallised into minute-long viral videos of arrogant white hipsters antagonising local communities.
Understanding how these cultural products function as subjective interpretations of complex phenomena is crucial. During the 1970s/80s, the narratives of the urban crisis spun by Hollywood provided justification for the withdrawal of government funding for the ‘undeserving poor’ of America’s urban cores. Attempts to tackle the problems besetting US cities today will continue to be vitally influenced by an urban imagination forged in media outside of the academy.
Image: Dirty Harry (1971), directed by Clint Eastwood, https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/p/dirty-harry/8d6kgwzl5mks?activetab=pivot%3aoverviewtab.