“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…