Paul Newman’s character is actually a lot cooler than this movie poster makes out

Need a one-dimensional movie villain? Consider The Bronx.

“Shoot a purse snatcher — they’d crucify me!”

“Say he pulled a knife — we’d back you up.”

This bit of dialogue between two cops on the beat in the film Fort Apache the Bronx is typical of the movie’s overall tone. It presents the South Bronx as a place where a decent man, in this case Paul Newman, is struggling to stand up straight while the undertow of immorality is sucking the sand out from under his feet.

Filming in the South Bronx in 1981 was like setting a movie today inside Donald Trump’s brain — a place that’s in the news a lot, speculated about, and considered by many to be among the most hostile places on the planet.

Unlike one man’s mind, however, the South Bronx contained — and continues to contain — multitudes. And that’s part of the problem with the movie: Fort Apache the Bronx is told almost exclusively from the perspective of white men. The title itself tells you where it’s coming from: the police station is the only outpost of civilization in the neighborhood, like a fort on the frontier in 1860 — layers upon layers of offensive imagery.

So much so that the movie was protested by residents of the Bronx when it was made, and the filmmakers were pressured into putting a title card at the beginning of the movie stating that it was “a portrayal of the lives of two policemen” and, as such, did not deal with the neighborhood’s law-abiding citizens and did not “dramatize the efforts of the individuals and groups” who were “struggling to turn the Bronx around.”

It seems unlikely that this message really stuck with most people since it sounds like it was written by a roomful of PR professionals and lawyers and is almost immediately followed by a scene in which Pam Grier murders two cops in cold blood.

Fort Apache the Bronx made over $60 million at the box office on a $10 million budget, meaning that it was a substantial commercial success and lots of people saw it. And what they saw confirmed what had been in the news for the previous decade: the Bronx was crumbling. By some estimates, the South Bronx lost as much as 80 percent of its housing stock due to fires in the 1960s and 1970s. Explanations vary. Some attribute the fires to arsons set by building owners who saw middle-income residents leave for the suburbs (“white flight”) and calculated that their buildings would be worth more in a fire insurance claim. Others say that at least some fires were set by gangs. Still others say the city’s finances were to blame: with a shrinking budget, fire stations had to be closed somewhere, and the poorest neighborhoods — with the least political pull — lost theirs.

Like a sideshow at a carnival, the movie knows what you expect to see going in and delivers. White, middle-class Americans going to see a movie set in the Bronx expected to see rubble, drugs, prostitutes, and criminals. All of the things that they, or their parents, were trying to get away from when they moved to the suburbs. None of these things are in short supply. The cops are dirty and have so little respect for the residents that, when a cop tosses a guy off a building, it’s not even the emotional core of the movie. Paul Newman’s girlfriend — a nurse no less! — is a heroin addict. And when Pam Grier is ultimately dispatched — after killing a surprising number of nameless characters — it is unceremonious and tangential to the plot.

In reality, of course, the Bronx is like any other place: much more complicated and interesting than a Hollywood movie would be inclined to investigate. The Bronx has more people than Dallas; it would be in the top ten largest cities in America if it were its own city. Much smaller cities have very rich histories. It goes without saying that the Bronx has its own culture and class striations and millions of stories big and small — the Thain Family Forest alone is a fascinating nature preserve of old-growth forest the likes of which most of us have never seen. Within the decade before Fort Apache the Bronx was made, a new art form — hip hop — was born on the same streets depicted as a blood-soaked and rubble-strewn hellscape.

At the same time, other than Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo, there aren’t many things pulling the average tourist into the South Bronx, so a movie like this one is going to have an outsized impact on how the entire world sees this area. Putting Jackie Chan in the faux-Bronx in the mid-1990s martial arts movie Rumble in the Bronx (which was actually filmed in Vancouver) was like a movie producer’s dream game of Mad Libs: “Okay, we’re going to put [name of action star] in the toughest predicament of his life — he’s going to have to have a [catchy name for fisticuffs] in [name of prison/nightmare world/ very tough neighborhood].” It could just as easily have been Bruce Willis in “A Donnybrook in the Outback” or Stallone in “Smackdown in San Quentin”.

Taking an entire metropolis-sized neighborhood and reducing it to a symbol for social disintegration is problematic on a lot of levels, but most tangibly it has political consequences. The Bronx becomes a stand-in for any non-white working-class neighborhood: a place that traps you while it burns around you. Not a place to invest in — certainly nowhere for your precious tax dollars to go.

Meanwhile, of course, as the title card at the start of the movie sort of, kind of, tried to remind audiences, this is not post-nuclear war North America — this is a neighborhood, full of families and concerned citizens, and people who care about the kind of place they live in. Anywhere there are people, there are going to be people who say: we want a safe place to raise our kids. You can go online right now and see what groups like the South Bronx Community Association are doing: fighting day in and day out for a better neighborhood. This kind of thing gets no screen time in a movie about cops being the last bastion of civilization because it undercuts the narrative.

Fort Apache the Bronx was not the first piece of cop-oriented entertainment to be filmed on location in this part of New York City. In the early 60s, the very light-hearted sitcom Car 54 Where Are You? revolved around the misadventures of a couple of police officers (one of whom was played by Fred Gwynne, who would go on to star in The Munsters) on patrol in the Bronx. A typical episode might involve something like Fred Gwynne’s character Muldoon learning that he’s gotten too tall to be a policeman, or the cops — and this is not made up — resolving a recurring weekly domestic dispute by tricking a man into thinking that he had missed the day of the week on which he usually argued with his wife!

That, 20 years later, audiences would embrace a movie in which a pair of cops are murdered in cold blood by heroine-addict/prostitute Pam Grier says a lot. And it says as much, or more, about the audiences themselves and how they need to see the city.

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Aaron McKeon

Professional planner, unprofessional writer. Member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Also, a Sunday School teacher.