Cracks of sunlight seep through the clouds, streaks of gold on a palette of dark purple and blue. Dusk is coming, but the sun won’t give up without a fight. Below, little pinpoints of light set the darkness aglow, each one a person, a car, a store, a home. Somewhere, on some little street corner, a crowd hangs back underneath a grimy traffic signal, thoughtlessly obedient. Stockbrokers, college students, sweaty-faced teens in a hurry to clock in for their shift — nobody looks exactly alike, but they wait for the signal to walk and cross the street together all the same.
If you grew up on a steady diet of 80s and 90s movies like I did, this is the New York City you know. Even today, when looking at posters for films set in the Big Apple, the image I get in my head is identical to the one I had as a kid. In my memory, I see a New York City stuck in eternal summertime. The streets are packed with cars; the sidewalks are soaked in neon light; the air smells like sweat and wind blown up from the subway tunnels, tinged with pizza grease; and it’s always twilight. That’s the one thing that remains a constant no matter how old I get: the sun never goes down in New York. It really is the city where nobody sleeps.
It took me years to reconcile my image of this imaginary New York City with the real one. When I visited the city for the first time in my early 20s, my Megabus had the misfortune of being in Lincoln Tunnels in the middle of rush hour. Sitting in that claustrophobic metal box with thirty other strangers made me acutely aware of everything that could go wrong. Only eighty-year-old slabs of concrete were holding back hundreds of tons of water from sweeping in to crush us all. To distract myself from this wonderful image, I concentrated on the other drivers. They were all used to this. What was going through their minds? Were they angry? Was being stuck here just one awful surprise in a day full of them? What did they have waiting for them back home?
Movies set in New York make the protagonists look like a tiny fish in a sea of millions. Everyone has a story unfolding right now even if we’re not privy to it. For instance, Ghostbusters (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1986) and Little Shop of Horrors (dir. Frank Oz, 1986) are set in the same year. Who’s to say that Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) wasn’t a distant relative of Seymour Krelborn (also Rick Moranis)? What if the Ghostbusters were blasting a hole into an ancient-Sumerian-god-turned-giant-marshmallow-monstrosity’s face while Seymore was busy feeding his killer plant on the other side of town? Everything seems so much smaller when you’re surrounded by more people than you’ll ever see in your life, and your perspective shifts accordingly. The person running to catch the train might be late for their wedding; the man selling hot dogs on the street corner could be working a second job to put his daughter through college; the bag lady pushing a grocery cart uptown could have been making six figures at her job before she was fired.
And that’s what makes New York City so special. It’s a city made of stories, defined by the diverse people who live there and all their hopes, dreams, and tragedies. Everyone is the center of their own world, the protagonist of their own tale, which is why New York City lends itself so well to film. Think of all the movies set in Manhattan where the main characters are superheroes. Think of all the stories about ordinary people stepping up to save the city — I guarantee you’ll be here for at least an hour.
We often talk about the scene in Spider-Man (dir. Sam Raimi, 2002) where Peter Parker (Toby Maguire) is forced to choose between saving Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and a cable car full of children. The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) spends a good two minutes brutalizing Peter until he has him dangling from a bridge, literally hanging on by a thread. As the Goblin flies forth to impale Peter on his glider, all hope seems lost. Then a bucket falls from the sky and hits the Goblin in the face, knocking him off-course at the last second. More garbage rains down from the sky as the camera pans up to reveal a crowd on the bridge, shouting insults while they pelt him with garbage. “You mess with Spider-Man, you mess with New York!” one man says. Another next to him heartily agrees: “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!”
It’s such a gloriously over-the-top moment, but it’s one of the best in a modern movie that exemplifies the persistence and unity New Yorkers pride themselves on. New York is its people. Whether they love the city or hate it is irrelevant. Their feelings bleed into film all the same.
It’s so easy to romanticize New York City. Take a look at The Fisher King (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1991) and how it portrayed Manhattan as a modern-day Camelot, a world where magic hid in filthy alleyways and underneath the starry sky in Central Park. Earlier in the film, our deuteragonist Perry (Robin Williams) goes to Grand Central Station to see his love interest, Lidia (Amanda Plummer); he’s been stalking her for months, but she doesn’t know he exists. When Perry spots her distinct newsboy cap in the crowd, he begins to follow her through the station. A couple behind Lidia dances out of focus, then another. Soon the entire terminal becomes a ballroom with the station’s iconic four-faced glass clock twinkling golden light. The film’s score melts into a sweeping symphony as Perry weaves around dancing couples in pursuit of Lidia, who remains wistfully out of reach.
The Fisher King isn’t the only film to paint New York City as a land straight out of a fairy tale — Enchanted (dir. Kevin Lima, 2007) does too. So does The Wiz (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1978). The same goes for Big (dir. Penny Marshall, 1988) and Home Alone 2 (dir. Chris Columbus, 1992), which both depict FAO Schwartz as heaven on Earth for children. Romanticized interpretations of the city aren’t new. Neither are cynical ones.
One of the biggest cities in the world also has some of the worst income inequality. In 2018 alone, the average annual income of New Yorkers in the 1% was $2.2 million, at least 31% out of the state’s income. New Yorkers in the lower income brackets made about $50,000 per year. The wage disparities experienced by Black residents are even more stark, with Black New Yorkers unrepresented in many industries and earning significantly less than white residents. To get an idea of how deep the wage gap is between white and Black workers, the average annual salary for a white New Yorker from 2014 to 2018 was $60,808 while the average Black New Yorker made only $40,707 — a $20,000 difference.
There are no shortage of films that explore the racial injustice Black New Yorkers face. Do the Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee, 1989) examines racial tension and police brutality in Brooklyn neighborhood Bedford-Stuyvesant through the lives of its Black community. (cw: slurs, racism) On the hottest day of summer, Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) stands in line at Sal’s Pizzeria, the neighborhood hangout, and argues with the titular Sal (Danny Aiello) at the counter over the pricing of a slice of pizza. Buggin Out grudging pays for his food and takes it to the back of the restaurant, finding a table underneath a row of framed pictures — Sal’s “Wall of Fame” — each one depicting a different Italian-American celebrity. Just before he takes a bite of his pizza, something catches his eye.
“Yo Mook!” Buggin Out yells across the room to Mookie (Spike Lee), an employee of Sal’s who’s also the film’s protagonist. “How come there ain’t no brothers on the wall?”
Sure enough, there’s not a single Black celebrity in Sal’s collection. As Buggin Out argues, this is odd because the neighborhood Sal does business in and all of his customers are Black. When he voices his displeasure to Sal, he’s met with a scowl and a dismissive rebuttal: “You want brothers on the wall? Get your own place, you can do what you want to do.”
The argument leads to devastating consequences: it becomes the catalyst for a fight later that evening which sees Buggin Out return to the pizzeria with his friends, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), demanding that Sal change the Wall of Fame. Sal hurls a racial slur at Buggin Out, one thing leads to another, and the fight spills out onto the streets. The police are called. When they arrive, they immediately rush to pull Buggin Out and his friends away from Sal, as if the three are the aggressors rather than Sal himself. Raheem is put in a chokehold by an officer.
Helplessly, we watch Raheem’s body spasm as he tries in vain to free himself. Then, gradually, his body goes still. The police finally release him — dead from asphyxiation. Spike Lee’s camerawork infuses the scene with disturbing realism: the shot where Raheem’s body hits the street, achieved by laying the camera on the ground, is chilling — we see every twitch and spasm as the light leaves his eyes. Spike Lee based Do the Right Thing on the 1983 murder of Michael Griffith, a graffiti artist who was killed along with five other Black friends by New York City police. The film is dedicated to their families.
Racism, violence, poverty — there are other films that shine a light on the injustices that happen every day in New York City. Set in Harlem, If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2018) focuses on a young Black couple and the trauma they experience from America’s racist criminal-justice system. Torch Song Trilogy (dir. Paul Bogart, 1988) is about a gay man living in a post-Stonewall New York City and the homophobic violence he and his partner face. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (dir. Elia Kazan, 1945) and Midnight Cowboy (dir. John Schlesinger, 1969) depict the hopeless reality of living in poverty.
New York City symbolizes so many different things to so many people: a second chance, the start of a new journey, finding family and love where both were denied; oppression, an abuse of power, suffering in silence while the rest of the world watches. The reality of some of these things may be difficult for us to stomach, even painful. Film can communicate that harsh reality to us, even make it palatable, but it can also distort the truth into a picturesque parody of itself, idyllic and wrong.
And film can also inspire us. It can challenge us to go out into the world, to look beyond our narrow value-system and consider new ways of thinking. It can get us to meet new people, try new things, and learn new things about ourselves — good and bad. Most of, it can teach us how to change. Whether we do anything meaningful with those lessons is up to us, but film can at least motivate us to consider it, and push us into taking that first step.
Meanwhile, back in the Lincoln Tunnels, the bus inched along through traffic. I couldn’t feel it creeping forward, but I could see it through the window. The movement was so subtle that you’d never notice if you weren’t paying attention. But soon, the honking started to let up. And eventually, the other cars began to move again.
Outside the tunnel, the New York City that greeted me was spread out like a pop-up book, silhouetted against the balmy sky. The buildings were so tall they seemed to stretch into infinity. The air smelled like motor oil, not pizza. The streets were flat and grey, concrete pockmarked with the cracks of old construction work, worn away by hundreds of millions of feet — generations of scars, laid bare under the sun.
But it was twilight. And the air, pleasantly warm like summertime, felt like an embrace.
That was close enough for me.