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When the film Fort Apache, The Bronx, starring Paul Newman as a conflicted cop patrolling a neighborhood ravaged by poverty and drugs, came out in 1981, it was a controversial hit. Local community leaders fought with the film's producers and threatened to sue because of the way the film depicted blacks and Puerto Ricans.
Fort Apache, The Bronx opens in an empty lot full of rubble, as a graffiti-covered subway car rumbles by on an elevated track. A strung-out prostitute, played by Pam Grier, walks up to a police car where two rookie cops are sipping their morning coffee, pulls a gun, and shoots them both. After the shooting, local citizens emerge from the shadows, grabbing the badges and wallets out of the cops' pockets.
It's an over-the-top scene, but it crystallizes the way that police officers viewed the real conflicts that took over this neighborhood 30 years ago. Which makes Fort Apache, The Bronx a perfect film to revisit for "On Location," our series that considers the importance of place in American cinema.
At the time, New York City cops really did talk about the neighborhood as hostile territory. That's how the station house in the 41st Precinct earned the nickname "Fort Apache," after the 19th century U.S. cavalry outpost located on Native American land and the John Ford film that depicted the conflict between the Army and the Apaches.
Former cop Peter Tessitore, who worked at the 41st Precinct in the 1960s, remembers how the building got its name. "Our lockers were on the third floor, and somebody from across the street shot arrows through the window," Tessitore says.
Fort Apache, The Bronx is loosely based on the experiences of Tessitore and another former officer, who were the inspiration for the main character, a cop named Murphy. Played by Newman, Murphy is a tough but honest cop who cheerfully keeps order on his beat, delivers the occasional baby and flirts with a nurse at the local hospital.
The 41st Precinct earned another — not unrelated — nickname, too: Little House on the Prairie. By 1980, two-thirds of the people who lived in the precinct had fled. Hundreds of landlords resorted to setting buildings on fire to collect insurance money. Community activists who had remained in the South Bronx were not happy to see a high-profile Hollywood production arrive.
"They were in our neighborhood. This was our territory, and they were an invading force," says Gerson Borrero, who in 1980 was part of a group of local activists who called themselves the Committee Against Fort Apache. "They were here to really do us harm. Not physical. But [to] film something that was not totally true."
Borrero and his fellow activists got a copy of the script before shooting started, and they complained that most of the black and Puerto Rican characters portrayed in the film were pimps or drug addicts or worse. The committee demanded changes to the script, and threatened to sue. They organized public demonstrations.
"Some of the protesters did go a little too far," Borrero says. "And yes, there were security concerns on their part."
"It got tense," says Christopher Nowak, the art director for the film. "They started demonstrating and wanting to obstruct shooting. So we had to have security. And the police presence made it even more difficult. It was a very tense situation."
Nowak says the producers would deliberately try to keep the shooting locations secret to avoid clashes with demonstrators and other angry residents. "We had a couple of incidents where [they] got on the rooftops and threw things down at the crew," he says. "Like toilets. Shattering porcelain from six or seven stories is a pretty exciting event."
Exciting enough to make it into the film — the same thing happens in the movie, when rioters throw a toilet off the roof at cops.
The film's producer, Gill Champion, remembers things a little differently. He says reports of the protests were exaggerated. "We did change a couple of locations which we felt wouldn't be the best place to shoot at," he says. "But all in all, despite what might have come out in the press, we shot the movie on schedule, on time, made a lot of friends."
Champion says relations with the local residents were basically good. And he rejects the charge that the filmmakers were there to exploit the neighborhood:
"We were exposing something that the world hadn't seen. That there was areas like this within our country. And hopefully there was a chance for people to earn a better life somehow."
According to Champion, the production spent a lot of money in the South Bronx and hired residents to work as extras. But Nowak says there weren't enough jobs to satisfy the locals. "A movie crew, even though there are a lot of people on it, everyone has a very skilled position. And it's all unionized. And that was a very difficult situation. So we couldn't really offer them jobs," Nowak says.
In interviews at the time, Newman did seem troubled by the charges of racism leveled at the film. But he insisted the script was just as tough on the cops as it was on the pimps and drug dealers. Though the filmmakers deny that they changed the script to suit the protesters, Borrero thinks otherwise.
"You still have blacks and Latinos and Puerto Ricans being dope pushers and bad guys," Borrero says. "But we saw in the film there was some conveyance that there were white officers who were really bad, also."
The protesters and other activists tried to organize a boycott of Fort Apache, The Bronx when it opened in 1981, but despite — or perhaps because of — their attempts, the movie was a box-office success. The protesters did get one thing they wanted: At the beginning of the movie, a disclaimer flashes on the screen, acknowledging that the film doesn't deal with the law-abiding members of the community or "the individuals who are struggling to turn the Bronx around."
In the 1990s, the stone bunker that previously been home to the infamous 41st Precinct was converted into office space for police detectives. Even Borrero, standing in front of the building, has trouble recognizing it.
"I mean, this is a beautiful building," Borrero says. "It could be any government building. But it used to be an intimidating place, with police officers looking out like they were gonna be assaulted. It looked like a fortress."
Today, the once-vacant lots around what was known as Fort Apache are filled with new apartment buildings and single-family homes. It's a diverse, working-class neighborhood. If you're looking for the burned-out shell the South Bronx used to be, you'll have to rent the movie. Because you won't find it here.
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