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Gotham Center in the News - New York Times October 31, 2003

 

Not Poifect, Dem Movies of Brooklyn
By Clyde Haberman

Foist of all, let's make one pernt poifectly clear: they don't talk like this in Brooklyn.

At least most of them don't. And they didn't even back when they did, if you'll forgive the Yogi-ism. At least most of them didn't, not the way filmmakers would have had you believe over the decades, with all those on-screen characters turning oys into ers and vice voisa.

"To paraphrase Mae West, Hollywood done Brooklyn wrong," said John B. Manbeck, a former Brooklyn borough historian.

He had a per, uh, point.

For years, countless movie characters identified as coming from Brooklyn spoke only the King's English. The Kings County English, that is, laced with puh-lenty of dese, dems, dose and de like. The mere mention of Brooklyn was good for a screen laugh, since everyone knew that only a slap-happy bunch of lovable mugs lived there.

Unless they went to war. Then they became the platoon wisenheimers, like Richard Conte or Dane Clark. In case you think this a dated stereotype, consider the soldier played just a few years ago by Edward Burns in "Saving Private Ryan." What a mouth on that guy! He was from Brooklyn, natch.

"Brooklyn really has a diverse population," Mr. Manbeck said, and that has been true for decades. But he said, "you'd never know it by looking at the movies, particularly the movies of the 30's and 40's."

The various ways that his borough has been cinematically handled and manhandled interested Mr. Manbeck enough to edit a collection of essays on the subject, "The Brooklyn Film" (McFarland & Company). His collaborator was Robert Singer, a professor of English and film studies at Kingsborough Community College, who lamented this week that he and his fellow Brooklynites "have been archetyped to death."

The durability of certain Brooklyn stereotypes in movies was a recurring theme the other evening in, you'll pardon the expression, Manhattan. An assortment of historians, academics, writers and others gathered in the City University's Graduate Center, at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, for a symposium held under the aegis of the Gotham Center for New York City History.

Judging from the loud applause that one speaker received simply for mentioning that he was from Brooklyn, it seemed safe to assume that so were most of the 60 or so people in the room. They were ecumenically inclined, though. They didn't flinch when a few refugees from the Bronx made their presence known.

No one there suggested that moviemakers are forever trapped in the dumb-but-adorable Brooklyn of, say, William Bendix or Jackie Gleason. How could they have? Just look at hard-edged recent films like "Girlfight," set in the Red Hook housing projects, or "He Got Game," with a rough Coney Island as the backdrop.

One academic, Amata Schneider-Ludorff, talked about the terror-coated images of Brooklyn's Arab-Americans, rounded up en masse in "The Siege" despite Denzel Washington's objections. Another scholar, Wilbert Turner Jr., discussed race and neighborhood identity as reflected in "Saturday Night Fever," "Do the Right Thing" and "Smoke."

Race, a man in the audience suggested, dominates popular perceptions of the borough, especially for young people in the age of hip-hop. "Brooklyn is black to them," he said. "It's not William Bendix anymore."

NOT so fast, others replied. Obviously, Brooklyn's complexion has changed, quite literally. But race, they argued, may matter less than class distinctions. "Brooklyn remains the home of the proletariat," said Joseph Dorinson, a history professor at Long Island University. "That's why it remains frozen in movies and on television."

Professor Singer essentially agreed. In movies, Brooklyn has long been portrayed as a place people want to leave behind, he said. It is "the other" to Manhattan.

That image is "never going to go away," he said. "There will be some variations, but it's eternally locked in the film and popular imaginations."

Yet moviemakers still find new things to say about Brooklyn, said Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting. Reached yesterday by phone, she ticked off a batch of new films set in Williamsburg, Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights and Brighton Beach.

It was certainly good to hear. Even Chester A. Riley, that Brooklyn-born zhlub played long ago by William Bendix, would have agreed. No way could he have responded to the news with his usual line: "What a revoltin' development dis is."

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