A fascinating collection of rarely screened documentaries, many made in the midst of New York City’s fiscal catastrophe of the 1970s and ’80s, Anthology’s “Outer Boroughs on Film” series starkly depicts the abject poverty of the era, while also honoring the rage, energy, and boosterism of those who made their homes in blighted, neglected neighborhoods. “We wanna stay where we are. We just wanna live better,” says a man nicknamed Mickey Mouse in William Sarokin’s Simpson Street (1979), referring to Hunts Point in the South Bronx—an area that dominates Anthology’s three-day outer-borough celebration.
Civic responsibility motivates Andre Beverly to coach an all-girl, multi-age track team in his neighborhood of Bed-Stuy in Bonnie Friedman’s The Flashettes (1977). Big-brotherly Beverly, a New York City Health Department employee by day, explains his commitment to his athletes: “It means they don’t have to die in the ghetto.” Twenty minutes of exhilarating, unsentimental uplift, The Flashettes focuses on Beverly’s track stars, suited up in cherry-red uniforms, at a meet at Downing Stadium (“Home of the New York Cosmos”) on Randall’s Island. Teenage long-jumpers, sprinters, and middle-distance runners talk of Wilma Rudolph as an inspiration and dream of being the first in their family to go to college, while severely cash-strapped mothers note that the $10 in monthly dues is worth it.
A tarter tribute to personal drive is found in Barry Braverman’s portrait of his father, Murray, in Murita Cycles (1978). Murray, who looks like a hobo Allen Ginsberg, has been running his titular Staten Island shop for 30 years, his fondness for amassing junk at both work and home reaching Collyer-like levels of pathology. Barry, frequently present onscreen and off-, can’t help disparaging Dad: “Looks like the same old shit to me,” he sneers after Murray hauls in another box of detritus; Braverman père is later seen washing in a filthy bathtub. But Murita Cycles is undeniably affectionate, albeit crankily, begrudgingly so, as kids with shaggy bowl-cuts attest to Murray giving them a good deal on bike tires, and a junkyard employee remarking, “He’s the strangest guy I know, but I enjoy him the most.”
Beyond paeans to coaches and weirdos, fury also fuels the series, most notably in Lincoln Hospital (1970), made by the activist documentary collective Newsreel, which formed in 1967. Opening intertitles summarize the vast economic and health care disparities between the South Bronx (30 percent black, 70 percent Puerto Rican), where the hospital is located, and Westchester County (98 percent white), directly to the north. The film recounts, through a series of unidentified, off-screen voices, how workers and local residents took control of Mental Health Services at Lincoln on March 3, 1969: “We’re talking about a whole system that conspires to keep people sick,” one inflamed narrator says, referring to the failure of the city’s Affiliation Plan, in which medical schools—in this case, the Albert Einstein School of Medicine—managed New York’s criminally underfunded, dysfunctional public hospitals. The film’s concluding utopian call to arms could have been a rallying cry on Capitol Hill last year: “We don’t want more efficient bad health care. We’re talking about a new system. It’s strong bodies. Well minds. And people being treated as people.”
How people are treated by New York’s Finest is the subject of Alan and Susan Raymond’s The Police Tapes (1976), an influence on both Hill Street Blues and Cops. Equipped with Portapacks, the Raymonds—who also directed An American Family—shot over the course of three months in the 44th Precinct of the South Bronx, an area with the “highest crime rate in all of New York City.” Watching morning roll call, it’s startling to realize that every cop—except for one—is white. (Also noticed: All of them sport bushy, Bicentennial-era mustaches.) Abuses of power and callous attitudes are captured: One officer forcefully pulls the hair of an extremely distressed woman and tells her to shut up; another, patrolling the 44th’s streets in a squad car, says that his job is “to keep society safe from the animals that are out there.” But many of the cops appear to be dutiful, if exhausted, civil servants, trying to persuade a clearly deranged woman to stop threatening her next-door neighbor with a flail, or asking a 69-year-old mother why she hit her daughter in the face with an ax.
The Police Tapes‘ most astonishing moments occur whenever Anthony Bouza, the Bronx Borough Commander at the time, appears onscreen. Citing Aristotle, B.F. Skinner, and A Clockwork Orange, the exceptionally eloquent commanding officer makes note of the Bronx residents’ hostility toward the cops’ power: “It is resented rightly. We all bridle at control.” A clear, dispassionate analysis of the consequences of city and federal government abandoning the neediest follows: “The poor are being more ignored now than they ever have been. . . . We are manufacturing criminals.”
A little too enamored of the criminals he gained access to—members of the South Bronx’s Savage Skulls and Savage Nomads gangs—Gary Weis (a former SNL director) spends too much time inside their Nazi-regalia-adorned hangouts in 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s (1979). But when he and noted DP Joan Churchill capture a block party, the film soars: Skulls, Nomads, the ladies who love them, kids, and community activists all groove to Chic’s “Dance, Dance, Dance” the summer before disco faded and hip-hop took over—and the South Bronx changed music forever.