Film and the Inner City

Film and the Inner City

The inner city as a character, not as mere background, became in the 1990s one of the staples of American film. For more than a decade, independent and studio directors dramatized the most convulsive, violent, and self-destructive inner-city lives. They are what fit best into the uncomplicated conventions of action melodrama. The films confirmed for suburban filmgoers their images of an inner city permeated with burnt-out, graffiti-scarred tenements and concrete-block housing projects, and their fears of feral drug dealers and wasted addicts. Even as abandoned swaths of the South Bronx and Brooklyn were being filled in with modest private homes and garden apartments, most often through the efforts of community organizations and church groups, film crews continued to scout locations in the most sensationally blighted of inner-city streets.

Some of the most talented directors of inner-city films have, nonetheless, created enduring, stark, and brutally honest portraits of contemporary slum life in Chicago, Los Angeles, and especially New York. American films that broke more sharply from the conventions of inner city action melodrama include Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity (1992), Darnell Martin’s I Like it Like That (1994), and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and Clockers (1995). Rejecting facile stereotypes and conventional box office formulae, the directors captured the ethos of New York’s Puerto Rican, African-American, and white working-class worlds. These films form a unique body of work comparable to some of the most socially critical and disquieting films made in Europe, like those made by English directors Ken Loach, Gary Oldman, Mike Leigh, and France’s Mathieu Kassovitz.

Nick Gomez’s low-budget film Laws of Gravity (filmed in twelve days for $38,000 and borrowing heavily from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets) deals with petty thieves in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint. Gomez drops the neighborhood’s stable Polish immigrant and second-generation population from the film, and by doing this he creates an edgier, more volatile world—devoid of families and populated by a narrow world of marginal young white men and women who hustle, shoplift, loan shark, hijack, sell guns, and hang out in a neighborhood bar. It’s a seedy milieu—the characters living in squalid, claustrophobic railroad flats—but not quite a slum. The real slum in their minds is adjoining Puerto Rican Williamsburg, with its abandoned buildings and garbage-filled lots.

The film takes place in the existential present—we learn nothing about the characters’ pasts or what shapes their behavior. Gomez offers no social or economic explanations or rationalizations for the world he evokes—behavior is all. What we get is a great deal of semi-improvised, naturalistic, inarticulate talk evoking a dead-end, brutal world where nothing apocalyptic occurs. There are no shoot-outs, car chases, melodrama...