Occasionally a television network will do something so weird, so completely inappropriate for prime-time TV, that a strange feeling enters my heart: a combination of appreciation for the tremendous guts required to do such a thing, and laughter at the utter stupidity of thinking it would work out. I had this feeling while watching FOX’s Profit, just after the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” during Super Bowl XXXVIII, or when I was recently directed to this YouTube clip from Cop Rock, which has one of my all-time favorite YouTube descriptions.
I had the same feeling when I learned that NBC had tasked Saturday Night Live director Gary Weis to do a documentary about youth gangs in the South Bronx in 1979. The end product was deemed inappropriate for airing; presumably, the network thought that they could bleep the offending dialogue, but it turned out that would have resulted in as many bleeps as words. The film, 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s, was eventually buried with a limited VHS release in 1985, which is too bad since it may well be one of my top-10 all-time documentaries.
The best way to describe 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s is to compare it with a fiction film that was made in 1979 also, The Warriors. That movie is a surreal, candy-coated, action-blockbuster take on the subject of youth gangs in the grungy New York City of the late 1970s; this movie is the reality. The gangs (often referred to as “clubs” by members) in 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s have similarly wild names and similarly garish costumes as the gangs in The Warriors. Fundamentally, though, The Warriors is absurd, a fantastical creation of a screenwriter who might have taken the time to speak with a gang member or two. Weis’ documentary explores the bombed-out streets and burned-out buildings that The Warriors couldn’t even dream about.
Also like The Warriors, this is a movie of a bygone era. I’m sure some of the gang members in this movie sell drugs, but the drug game was still a few years away from changing completely. At the time this movie was made, cocaine was still a rich man’s drug, and gangs still tried to make their costumes elaborate. This movie, much like The Warriors, suggests that gangs preferred to settle their differences hand-to-hand, or lead-pipe-to-lead-pipe, more often than shoot each other. The crack wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s would send all of that out of the window. It’s actually charming to watch the movie portray gang members stealing off of the back of a truck or taking a TV out of an apartment window, knowing what kind of violence would be associated with the word “gang” ten years later.
Having said that, the movie goes out of its way to establish that its gang members are dangerous people. A few members of the anti-youth gang unit of the NYPD talk about rapes, murders and assaults committed by the members in the movie, and more than a few of the members are happy to cop to their crimes on camera. However, the movie also goes out of its way to let us know that gangs provided protection to people who felt alone, and to the businesses that tolerated them. I don’t think that protection offsets the various crimes that are committed, but then, I never grew up in the economically devastated South Bronx either.
That’s a big theme of this movie, both in the minds of the filmmakers and in the subjects they’re interviewing: you can’t stand in judgment until you’ve lived the life. One gang member refuses to answer any questions until the interviewer (Weis, presumably) talks about his life, where he lives and how nice his house is. The implication is clear: if you’ve lived comfortably, you can’t know. The movie has many interviews with a man called “Heavy,” described as a “former club owner” who doesn’t seem to have a lot of connection with the gangs in the movie. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time Heavy appeared that I realized he was there simply to let the audience know how it was in the Bronx in those days, to provide a view into the violence and danger of the times that not even the police can have.
The filmmaking of this movie is not spectacular, in part because it can’t afford to be. Weis was on a television budget, and the sort of equipment required for flashier filmmaking might have attracted the wrong sort of attention on the mean streets. I was actually very glad for the simple approach, though, because documentaries have become so flashy in recent years as to become annoying. If your subject matter is compelling and your interviewees are interesting, then there shouldn’t be any need for graphics or animated sequences or the like. My lone complaint would be for the re-enactments that pop up throughout the movie. Weis was unable to capture events properly at the time they occurred, so he re-shot them, but it seems clumsy and seeing the word “REENACTMENT” on the screen took me out of the movie.
In the end, I can best sum up 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s via one interview; you can find it near the end of this YouTube clip. Gang member “D.S.R.”, after having shown his dedication to his gang, discusses all of the “antisocial” things he’s done. He talks about rape, assault, and murder in a tone so blasé that I dare you not to laugh (“maybe I killed somebody, I don’t know”). He tries to excuse that behavior with the laughably casual line “as I got older, I got wiser” while the camera pulls back to show a swastika hanging in his room. (Does he even know what the Nazis thought about black people like himself?) Yet, when he talks about his karate class and going to high school and trying to leave the gang life behind, it’s strangely poignant and moving at the same time. By capturing both sides of the life of such a strangely dual person, this movie approaches the truest ideal of the documentarian.
Reviewed by Mark Young