In a satirical and political song that encapsulated many important issues of the 1980s, social critic and punk rocker Jello Biafra sings, “You see a black face, you see a crack-head/ You see a black face, you see Willie Horton with a knife…/ You see one Willie Horton, you’ve seen them all” and “Proud neighborhoods with baseball bats/ Why do they get so much press?” As John Brady explains in Bad Boy, Biafra’s lyrics alluded to the infamous Willie Horton advertisement, a racially charged commercial that enmeshed blackness and criminality, the crack-cocaine scourge, and the media depiction of some Americans who fought back against crime.
Craig Reinerman and Harry G. Levine explains that, despite the scourges of crack-cocaine, Americans were invited to feel confident again about their government. During the 1980s, American society was marked by President Reagan’s attempt to restore pride in national institutions. Reagan described his becoming president as an event made possible by the voters, who “rounded up a posse, swore in this old sheriff, and sent us riding into town.” While the Reagan administration’s policies were divisive, many Americans were attracted to Reagan’s personality and confidence. As Lou Cannon states, “He believed in heroism, in the triumph of goodness, in happy endings….Most Americans believed in these things too, and Reagan knew they believed in them.” Like his Republican predecessors, Reagan promoted new measures that would purportedly assist different states and cities in their efforts to deter crime. Reagan believed that the ultimate responsibility of enforcing the laws rested in the hands of state and local authorities. He argued, “It's time to get these hardened criminals off the street and into jail. The primary responsibility for dealing with these career criminals must, of course, rest with local and state authorities.” Reagan portrayed himself as a sheriff despite not acting as one. His belief that the American people should fight for justice was reflected in the vigilante films of the early 1980s and the actions of Americans in reality.
Citizens acted as vigilantes and fought the encroachment of drugs and gang violence when police authorities were undermanned. In New York City, one Ebony writer noted, “In community after community residents are no longer sitting idly by and watching the drug take over in their neighborhoods. Some have gone so far as to form vigilante groups whose main object is to keep cocaine peddlers away.” Moreover, drug dealers were viewed as dangerous and particularly violent, especially if they were members of a gang. Gun-toting teenage gangbangers terrified many citizens. In an interview, Lt. Hourie Taylor of the Los Angeles Police Department stated, “How can you tell the kid who dropped out of school to go and find a job somewhere that pays minimum wage when he can make $200 a day selling drugs….He’ll say he can make money for himself, plus help his mama out.” Children as young as eight years old could be gang members. A teenager named Jallay Hall joined the Westside Rolling Forties at the age of eight “because gangs were the only way of life in his neighborhood.” Hall stated, “’I was netting $350 a day. I’m not rolling in money or nothing. There are eight of us in the dope house taking turns doing what we got to do.” In a radio address, Reagan talked about “children with excellent grades, athletic promise, outgoing personalities, but who, because of drugs, became shells of their former selves,” tailoring his message to appeal to the middle class and perhaps implicitly neglecting inner-city youths.
During the early to mid-1980s, vigilante films returned to the historical themes that had been central to creating the environment in which they flourished. The films focused on citizens clashing with gangs. These films include We’re Fighting Back (1980), Fighting Back (1982), Vigilante (1983), and Death Wish 3 (1985). Each tells a story about men and women of all backgrounds who stayed behind while other people fled to the suburbs. They are not the Paul Kerseys, Harry Callahans, or John Eastlands; rather, they are the Tony Imperiales and the Guardian Angels of the big screen, tired of disorder, crime, and inefficient law enforcement. Like Imperiale, they witness the old neighborhood’s decay and the vanishing sense of community; these were the “proud neighborhoods with baseball bats.” Moreover, it was imperative that community patrol groups portrayed themselves in a positive manner in order to deflect criticism about their activities. Within these movies, there was an effort to show multiracial and multiethnic solidarity among the characters while juxtaposing criminal activity and gang violence. The characters were left to fend for themselves, protecting their families and communities against criminals and gangs (“us” versus “them”), thus setting the stage for a battle between order and chaos.
Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels
During the 1970s, citizens of New York City expressed their outrage at the condition of public transportation. Knowing that going to work each day might entail a confrontation with a mugger or a thief on the subway train was disheartening to many people. The reality was that it was simply impossible to furnish enough workers to patrol every area in New York City, above and below ground. As a result, citizens of New York City took precautions to prevent themselves from becoming victims of crime, sometimes forming volunteer patrol groups.
The actions of one citizen and a group of volunteers served as the basis for We’re Fighting Back. The tough-talking and streetwise leader of the Guardian Angels, Curtis Sliwa grew up in a humble middle-class family in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. Sociologist Jonathan Rieder noted that Canarsians felt threatened by street crime, which instilled a sense of personal loss of security and the ability to move freely through the city. Moreover, Sliwa formed the “Magnificent 13,” a subway patrol group, in February 1979 while working at a McDonald’s restaurant in the South Bronx. The group’s activities expanded, and the amount of volunteers increased. Their iconic red berets and t-shirts that bared the emblem of a winged pyramid, which had an eyeball, identified the group’s members.
By 1982, the group claimed to have 2,200 members and about 1,800 members in training in 41 cities, which included Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Miami, and Los Angeles. In an interview, Sliwa stated, “In Los Angeles I was astounded to see blond-haired, blue-eyed boys drive up in cars with surfboards, park and go out on patrol.” In general, the composition of Guardian Angels chapters throughout the country differed depending on where they were formed. Throughout suburbs in the Midwest and West, the majority of volunteers were middle-class whites, whereas in cities, various racial minorities and white ethnic groups composed the makeup of the volunteer groups.
In 1981, actor/director Lou Antonio directed a made-for-television movie called We’re Fighting Back. As part of a deal to tell the story of the Guardian Angels, Curtis Sliwa agreed to a payment of $30,000 and a percentage of the profits earned from the story. However, prior to the airing of the film, Sliwa tried to block its airing, for he believed that it portrayed him as a “glowering and hardened vigilante.” Ultimately, Sliwa failed in a court bid to block the airing of the movie, and it was released on CBS in April 1981. On the day of its release, television critic John J. O’Connor noted his disapproval of the film, writing how at the end of the movie, “Life is back to the way it was, without people being afraid”; thus the film missed the opportunity to raise more issues about the nature of vigilantism. In addition, the movie served as a promotion for joining the group or establishing a local chapter. Chapter Commander Marcus Dent of Baltimore reminisced about when he became interested in the Guardian Angels. Dent stated, “I first learned about the Guardian Angels from a television show, it was a one-time thing called We're Fighting Back. I remember thinking the Angels seemed like superheroes, like community soldiers...I was 18 and I thought it looked cool.” While considering the economic and social conditions that foster criminal activity and the role that the media played in shaping public perceptions of vigilante groups, We’re Fighting Back examines how a dangerous environment helped to formulate notions about criminality.
The film We’re Fighting Back starts with a sequence of shots of the streets of New York City marred by piles of trash. Troubled by how the Bronx has changed over the years, Mr. Casey laments the neighborhood’s condition, stating to his son Case, “It’s a shame, I hate to see Anderson’s bakery go…Every time I come back here the city’s dirtier, a little meaner…. You know there are undeveloped countries that are better run than this.” Mr. Casey’s nostalgia shows that he gradually lost his personal attachment to the area. Casey feels that the people simply submitted to the deterioration of their environmental circumstances and allowed criminals to roam freely through the streets and harass them.
The problems of litter scattered across what little greenery exists, the general sense that the physical environment is almost beyond repair, and the impression that the streets belong to youthful gangs are the concerns of Casey and others. Although he blames the diverse group of “street punks” for many things, Mr. Casey does not state who is specifically responsible for the neighborhood’s changes. Moreover, the absence of recreational activities and organizations suggests that the people of the community lack personal and financial connections with each other. At one point, Case’s close friend Preacher recollects how the neighborhood was innocent and inviting when he was young, for he was able to go to movie theaters, play basketball, and hang out at different places He states, “You know the ten years in Alabama, I never saw nothing like this. Down in Birmingham, you know, I told the kids that I grew up in the Bronx, and they said, ‘Man that must’ve been awful.’ I like this place, I used to have good times here.” The neighborhood has become a place where people “are afraid to talk with each other, afraid to look at each other.” Preacher and Case are angry because the people around them fail to recognize that they are bound together. In the movie, the community is a social organism - if one part (citizen) of the body (community) is harmed then other parts of the body are affected. As a result, crime alienates the citizens of the community.
As the movie progresses, Case’s concern about the neighborhood grows. While working at the “Bronx Burger” with his friends Benny (the son of Dominican Republic immigrants), Ling (the son of Chinese immigrants), and Preacher, Case confronts a police officer, asking why the cop has not done more to protect the neighborhood’s citizens. The tired cop forcefully replies that the police force is understaffed. As a result, Case and his friends form a volunteer neighborhood patrol group, deterring criminal and gang activity within subway trains and stations. During this point, the actions of Case and his friends are not widely known within South Bronx. They do not have uniforms to mark themselves, which blurs the group’s identity as a positive force. In addition, the threat of violence and possible death by confronting gang members and criminals was serious during the early years of the Guardian Angels. For example, in January 1982, Frank Melvin, a member of the Guardian Angels chapter in Newark, was shot to death while on patrol duty by a police officer who mistook him for a suspect in a break-in investigation. The Newark Police Department called the shooting a tragic accident, yet Curtis Sliwa was unconvinced, stating that it was a “coldblooded killing,” which prompted him to organize a protest march in Washington D.C. for a federal investigation of Melvin’s death.
In the aftermath of a fight with a gang, the group gains attention from the media. During an interview, Case states, “The cops do as much as they can, but look at your average transit cop: a forty-four year old guy, working twelve hours a day, wearing forty pounds of gun, nightstick, mace, bullets, and radio around his waist. You think that’s gonna deter some 15 year old in sneakers? No, but we’ll deter him.” Much like the Guardian Angels of New York City, Case acts as a fictional Sliwa and utilizes the media to depict his group in a favorable manner. Case criticizes the state of law enforcement agents, yet his real targets are those who manage law enforcement agencies; Case shapes the group’s image to show it as working in conjunction with traditional law enforcement.
Moreover, Case continues, “We can just feel where the trouble is gonna come from because we know that world. You take away our home lives, our strong parenting, telling us right from wrong, and what you got? We could have all been in gangs. We know the language, we know the rules, we know how to walk down there.” Case’s argument relates to Daniel Moynihan’s report about black poverty. In his report, Moynihan posited, “The fundamental problem…is that of family structure. The evidence - not final, but powerfully persuasive - is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling,” citing poor education, access to employment, increased divorces, and an increase in illegitimate children as factors. Case suggests that the problems facing families of different races within impoverished areas are relatively similar. He criticizes the purported lack of strong families, yet simultaneously sympathizes with children who grow up in poor economic and familial circumstances.
Although he does not offer a solution to ameliorate economic and social conditions, Case believes that a strong community could be a substitute for “broken families.” During the group’s first official meeting, Case states to the potential members, “We’re not about street justice….And if you’re joining for kicks, you’re gonna be disappointed because it ain’t no fun getting called nigger, chink, honky, night after night...We’re standing up to these punks, but we’re not sinking to their level to do it.” During the early 1980s, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Michael Cordts went undercover as a Guardian Angel and found that “recruits were poorly trained in citizens’ legal rights; two violence-prone youths were graduated simply to bolster the size of the chapter.” Rahni Fiduccia of the Guardian Angels chapter in Chicago stated, “Most applicants think the Guardian Angels are a glorified Bruce Lee Squad and they just want to go out there and smash heads.” The volunteer groups inadvertently served as outlets for racial violence. Media portrayals of the Guardian Angels perhaps convinced viewers that they beat up racial minorities. We’re Fighting Back emphasizes multiracial solidarity against crime; all productive citizens are encouraged to put a stake in their society, whereas the criminal elements of society are condemned. Overall, the movie portrayed the Guardian Angels as a force for good in society and conveyed how the public perceived the group in reality, the diversity of the group, and its use of the media to enhance its image.
Fighting Back (1982), Narrative, and Political Power
In an interview with James Manion of the Associated Press in 1979, Newark’s vigilante Anthony Imperiale discussed his recent success as a candidate for New Jersey’s state assembly. Imperiale stated, “I surprised the hell out of them by getting elected. I know that. But the people who voted for me are those everyday people getting victimized out there by violence and corruption.” Manion wrote, “[N]o famous names spring to his lips when asked who should play Anthony Imperiale in a film being planned by Columbia Pictures. After a long pause, he answered ‘That’s a tough one. I really don’t know. I don’t think I’ll be in it, but I do want it to tell the whole story’.” Columbia Pictures never produced the film about Imperiale’s exploits. However, it is believed that Fighting Back, which was produced by Permut Presentations and directed by Lewis Teague, was inspired by Imperiale’s actions.
Released in theaters on May 21, 1982, Fighting Back told the tale of an Italian American deli-owner from Philadelphia named John D’Angelo (Tom Skerritt) and his efforts to eliminate crime in his neighborhood. Shortly after the film was released, Richard F. Shepard of The New York Times wrote that the film “addresses itself to crime on the streets and, although the message does not get delivered with crystal clarity, the movie is fast-moving, attention-holding and even thought-provoking.” Shepard commended the film, noting that it was “puzzling, more realistic in its parts than in its whole, which tries to attack the entire problem of crime and neighborhood self-protection, of selfless community service and of temptations to use service as a stepping stone.” Until 1982, mainstream films such as Vigilante Force and The Exterminator represented the genre, which were blasted by film critics as incoherent, goofy, or poor imitations of Michael Winner’s Death Wish. Contemporary discussion about Fighting Back was sparse, which is unfortunate because the movie contained a comprehensive discussion about vigilantism. Fighting Back deals with the various uses of vigilantism, highlighting how its proponents shape the public’s perception of vigilante groups as well as its functions as a community builder and platform for political change.
Fighting Back opens within a dark television studio where producers are editing parts of a documentary called Violence in America: The Killing of the Dream, which shows the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and attempted assassinations against Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan. Immediately, the movie begins with tying violence into the nation’s political, social, and economic history. There is a careful arrangement of images, sounds, and reels of television to portray the threats of crime and violence. After the preview of the documentary, the movie cuts to a congregation of a large group of people at an apartment. Young and old as well as black and white people mingle, laugh, smile, and reminisce about past events. Yet, the celebration stems from an elderly resident's decision to leave the neighborhood. Many for-sale signs are present throughout the movie on the windows of homes or front lawns, thus hinting at white flight, yet - as explained by Rachael Woldoff - misrepresenting the fact that lower and middle-class younger whites failed to stay and replace the white community that was growing older. Although it is not noted what prompts the man to move away from the neighborhood, John perhaps hints at the justification for leaving. He states to his wife Lisa (Patti LuPone), “I’m glad he didn’t get shot here. Everybody gets shot here.”
John’s optimism about the state of his neighborhood suddenly changes after a series of events affects his family. For example, Lisa suffers a miscarriage after an angry pimp crashes into their car. Furthermore, John’s mother, Vera (Gina DeAngeles), is mugged while picking up her prescription at a store in the evening; one of the muggers cuts off her finger so that he can retrieve her ring. Later, John learns that the police are unable to pursue his mother’s assailants, and there is the impression that they are not too concerned about it. As a result, John organizes a community meeting where he talks to his neighbors about crime, pleading to his peers to join him in forming a neighborhood patrol group. Several citizens hesitate joining the group, citing the dangers of confronting criminals or making citizens’ arrests. Yet, some people support the group. One African-American citizen says, “I just wanna say, I got a lot of reasons for not getting involved in this...But those cleaners, my father worked real hard for that and the last time they got robbed, they roughed up Gene.” Moreover, the film’s respectable citizens have a personal and economic attachment to the community, whereas criminals, who are non-citizens, do not have a meaningful attachment to it; their pursuits are enervating, draining the community’s essence so that they can fulfill their transitory and empty desires (drugs and alcohol). The protection of property is a strong justification for extralegal activity against criminals.
John’s efforts lead to the creation of the People’s Neighborhood Patrol. The PNP’s activities are a mixture of extralegal activities marked by violence while loosely working with law enforcement. During an interview with the mayor and police commissioner, John states, “We have no problem with the police. A few of them ride along with us...If I’m doing something illegal, then arrest me. I gotta do what I gotta do”; John’s close friend Vince Morelli (Michael Sarrazin) is a police officer. During one scene, John and his friends start a fight in a bar where lowly figures are present; at the end of the brawl, John asserts his middle-class identity and relevance to the community’s economic well-being by stating, “My name is John D’Angelo. I own a deli and I make the best hot hero in town.”
Crime, race, and politics are important themes that mark John’s transformation into a vigilante. The theme of race as a predictor of criminal behavior is present throughout the movie. Even though his mother’s assailants wore masks, John believes that his mother’s attackers are African Americans. While in the hospital, a police officer talks to John and suggests that the assailants of John’s mother are African Americans, thus helping to build John’s conviction. When John is led to PNP’s headquarters to see the men who attacked his mother, John sees that one of the muggers is an African American and proceeds to beat him up, prompting an African American leader, to stop him and point to the white mugger. Washington states, “There’s your black male at 20. It’s always gotta be the black guy, right John.” John’s actions are vengeful, and he desires to protect citizens, which clouds his judgment. In this way, the film asks viewers to question using instinct to identify criminals.
Although it seems like John is pushed into becoming politically active, John recognizes the importance of shaping his public image by taking action; he may not understand the different causes of crime, yet he recognizes that the public favored using force against criminals. After smashing a criminal's car with his car and throwing trashcans at his windshield, the neighborhood’s Italian-American community celebrates John’s actions, just like Imperiale. Consequently, John’s popularity leads to an interview with a journalist. During his interview, John states, “If the agencies of this city cannot protect the rights of my children and lives in this neighborhood, then we as parents reserve the right to protect the rights of our children, whatever way we can.” John’s statement is structurally similar but worded somewhat differently from Imperiale’s recorded speech in the movie, which is “If the law cannot control it because the mayor will not make ‘em, then it is time for us under the Constitution to defend ourselves to the limit.” Other people flatter John, which causes him to utter statements such as “Guys like me have special responsibilities, the problem ain’t just in the streets, it’s the politicians, the judges.”
Nonetheless, people are skeptical about John’s motives. In a conversation, John’s friend Vincent says to him, “The patrol’s changed, they’re getting out of hand, and you’ve changed, John. You know what you’re becoming? You’re becoming another goddamn police problem.” When a gang kills Vince, John becomes distraught. After Vincent’s funeral, John’s political advisers tell him, “Let’s turn this into something positive. The time’s right, John. You’re hot. And the funeral just gave you national profile, that’s all. Timing is everything in politics, it’s just a game of opportunities.” The death of Guardian Angel member Frank Melvin in January 1982 may have inspired the film. Curtis Sliwa partially used that tragic event to draw national attention to himself and the Guardian Angels. After weighing his options, John decides to rally the PNP and show force against the criminals who control the park. John is arrested during the “battle” in the park, yet the police commissioner allows him to walk free as a political favor, leaving him with information about a gangster who John kills by dropping a bomb through the top of his car. In the end, John wins an election for city council.
Fighting Back’s in-depth examination of the dynamics of urban vigilantism demonstrates its political and racial dimensions. The film asks viewers to question the characters’ motivations as well as how narrative construction constitutes a major role in shaping the public’s view of vigilante activity. John D’Angelo’s motivations for forming the People’s Neighborhood Patrol initially stems from his desire to provide security for his community. D’Angelo becomes enmeshed in his role as a crusader against crime; he rides the waves of political opportunism created by his successes as a neighborhood watchman. As the literal and political defender of the people, D’Angelo becomes the physical embodiment of law and order; his ascension into political power legitimizes extralegal action as a form of democratic expression.
Some Lights, No Cameras, Much Action: Vigilante (1983) and the Secret War
Movie theaters released William Lustig’s Vigilante, which starred Robert Forster and Fred Williamson, in September 1983. Lustig’s Vigilante examines the struggle of citizens to cope with crime, justice’s weaknesses, and crime’s effect on gender norms within the family. As in Fighting Back, crime is associated with outsiders, and there is a clear distinction between “good” people of color and “bad” people of color. Within the historical context that the film was made, one Canarsie homeowner noted, “It’s the minority’s right to move where they want. I wouldn’t mind if a colored family moved next door if they were upstanding and fine like me….But I don’t want trash who will frighten me. My problem is walking in the streets and seeing people in the street who I don’t know whether they are going to bother me” (Rieder 83). In the movie, dirty-looking men assault young females while senior citizens cower in fear, hiding behind the doors and walls of their apartment rooms, refusing to talk to investigators. Although it appears that citizens do not know anything about the crime, they withhold information from the police because they distrust them. Instead, citizens seek help from the local vigilante group.
The group has a covert relationship with the community, serving as an underground guerrilla network. The relationship between the community and the vigilantes reflects a transposition of the Vietnam War narrative, yet the vigilantes are portrayed as Vietcong that use the help of citizens to fend off the figurative American imperialist forces (the criminals). The vigilante group’s secrecy is conveyed by how citizens refuse to talk to police officers when they are asked for information about a crime; instead, an old lady rides along with Nick (Fred Williamson), Burke (Richard Bright), and Ramon (Joseph Carberry) in their van while she points out the criminal to them on the street; the criminal is paralyzed by Nick, Burke, and Ramon. In the movie’s opening scene, Nick teaches prospective vigilantes in a classroom-like setting. Trainees are shown shooting guns at a firing-range. At one point, Nick states, “We ain’t got the police, the prosecutors, the courts, or the prisons...When you can’t go to the corner to buy a pack of cigarettes after dark, you have a moral obligation, the right to self-preservation. This is our Waterloo, baby! If you want your city back, you gotta take it, dig it? Take it.”
In addition, racial profiling is questioned throughout the film. After completing his transaction, Nick stares down the drug dealer, which prompts the dealer to turn around and walk in the opposite direction. Nick becomes the hunter while the drug dealer becomes his prey. However, Nick is not marked as a dangerous African American. The viewer is supposed to know that Nick stands for vigilante justice and order. “Good crime” is permissible, whereas “bad crime” is not tolerated. Criminals have the right to live as long as they are isolated and excluded from society, thus preventing them from doing harm to it. When traditional methods of criminal prosecution and law enforcement fail to deter criminal activity or allow its continuance, extralegal justice is permissible as an alternative method. In the minds of Nick and others, the victims of crime deserve justice, whether it is legal or illegal. The message is that gangs that menace law-abiding citizens should not exist.
The movie’s main character Eddie Marino (Robert Forster) faces the aforementioned dilemma in the movie. Eddie is a middle-aged working man who wants to make life better for his wife Vickie (Rutanya Alda) and his son. Together they enjoy a picnic in the park where Eddie teaches his son how to fly a remote-controlled airplane and suggests to his wife that when he saves enough money from work, they will be able to take a vacation. Yet hovering in the background of this peaceful environment is the threat of crime. While at a gas station, Vickie shouts at a Hispanic male named Rico (Willie Colón) because he harasses an old gas station attendant. Like Lisa D’Angelo from Fighting Back¸ Vickie Marino is a strong and assertive female. However, Vickie’s violation of gender norms that situates males as the dominant force within American society leads to her being attacked by Rico; her son is then executed by an African-American criminal. Eddie is distressed about the death of his son and the stabbing of his wife; Nick offers to help him find the people who killed his son and assaulted his wife, yet Eddie declines his offer.
Eddie acknowledges that the threat of crime is real, yet he does not believe that the enforcers and interpreters of the law can be criminals or become corrupt. However, when Judge Sinclair (Vincent Beck) gives Rico a lenient sentence and suspends his time in jail, Eddie loses faith in the capacity of humans to do good and his anger leads to his temporary detainment in prison for showing contempt of court. Eddie’s trust in the system is betrayed when he learns that Rico will not be punished for his crimes; Eddie assumes that Rico’s rights would be taken away, but the justice system fails to perform this function. Hence, the operation of the system appears flawed. Likewise, despite killing Eddie’s son, Prago (Don Blakely) is never tried for the crime: it is as if the crime never happened. After leaving prison, Eddie is a hardened individual who wants revenge, which leads him to kill Rico and eventually track down Prago.
As noted by Jonathan Rieder, “[P]lebeian youths and adults celebrate toughness as a cultural ideal, supply their members with experience in fighting, and reject the sanctity of due process.” Eddie oversteps the ideal of toughness by killing Rico, thus solidifying his manhood and demonstrating his capacity to act. However, Vickie leaves Eddie after he kills Rico. Eddie fulfills his role as the economic provider for his family, yet fails to protect his family. Vickie perhaps understands that she fails to protect the domestic sphere, yet she does not blame herself for her son’s death. By confronting Rico at the gas station (a public place), she invites the corruptive elements of society into her house. Yet, Vickie protests society’s prescribed gender roles; she challenges them not because they partially constrain her activity, but because they fail to protect her home. Vickie criticizes the failure of men to prevent the possibility of corruptive elements (or crime) from seeping into the domestic sphere. Eddie’s initial failure to realize the ideal of toughness and masculinity leads to estrangement from his wife.
Eddie concludes his vigilante activity by killing Judge Sinclair with a car bomb; Sinclair’s words, “The court sentences you to two years, sentence to be suspended” echo in the background as Eddie detonates the bomb. Overall, Vigilante examines the internal shortfalls of the American justice system by depicting it as corrupt and ineffective, thus prompting the characters in the movie to dole out justice on their own terms. Eddie enters the community’s vigilante network and asserts his patriarchal role and masculinity by ultimately killing Rico, yet he is unable to salvage his marriage and become a vigilante hero.
Bernie Goetz, Subway Vigilante
Nearly a year before the release of Death Wish 3 on November 1, 1985, a man named Bernhard Goetz shot four young African Americans on a subway train in New York City on December 22, 1984, claiming that they threatened him. A New York Police Department hotline established for tips about the subway shooter “instead attracted hundreds of callers who expressed support for the gunman's actions. Some people offered to help pay legal expenses and others suggested that he run for Mayor.” Eventually, Goetz surrendered to the police. He was acquitted of attempted murder and first-degree assault charges, yet was convicted on illegal possession of a firearm.
Despite his apparent feebleness, many journalists and people compared Goetz to the main character in Death Wish. The lyrics of a contemporary song were inspired by Goetz, “’I’m not going to give you my pay/ Try and take it away/ Come on, make my day/ They call him the vigilante,” blending references to Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey in Death Wish. Even the Guardian Angels showed their support by asking pedestrians to fill a bucket for Goetz’s legal defense. Furthermore, throughout the year, critics claimed that Death Wish 3 sought to glorify and exploit Goetz’s actions. However in an interview, the film’s director Michael Winner stated, “We made Death Wish in 1974….He’s a very slow learner if it took him eleven years to follow this film.” In an interview after his acquittal, Goetz told journalist Carole Agus about the public’s conception of him as a real-life Paul Kersey from Death Wish. Goetz said, “Wrong movie, it was more like A Clockwork Orange. A Clockwork Orange had three or four boys in it. What happened? The boys (on the subway) were similar to the boys in A Clockwork Orange who came upon someone who had a gun. If you understand that, you’ll understand…the whole thing.” Goetz revealed little about his intentions leading up to his trial. The public constructed Goetz’s narrative and his vigilante profile. Agus concluded, “For his story to be told at all, it had to be told by others.”
Defenders of Their Way of Life: Death Wish 3 (1985)
Critics may have been relieved or upset that the plot of Death Wish 3 did not verify their suspicions that it was produced in light of Bernhard Goetz’s actions. Nonetheless, film reviewers did not praise the movie. One reviewer wrote, “There is not a moment of credibility in the movie and the ending is sheer chaos, and anticlimactic at that. Mr. Winner runs out of imagination before Mr. Bronson runs out of ammunition.” In his review of Death Wish 3, Roger Ebert wrote, “I guess it's supposed to be heartwarming to see whites, blacks and Latinos working side by side to rape, pillage and murder.” In fact, director Michael Winner wanted to make the movie feel less intense and violent than the previous films. He stated, “I thought we’d cheer it up. It was a different era and I thought we’d have these enormous stunts and buildings blowing up. I must add, I didn’t write the script. The script had most of that in, but I did think we really could go ‘gung ho’.”
The plot of Death Wish 3 revolves around the return of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) to New York City to visit his friend Charlie (Francis Drake), a decorated soldier whose apartment walls are decorated with war memorabilia and paintings of the Wild West. Unfortunately, a gang led by a man named Fraker (Gavan O’Herliy) robs and murders Charlie. Kersey enters Charlie’s apartment prior to his death, just before the arrival of police officers who arrest him as the suspected murderer. Nonetheless, the police department’s Captain Striker (Ed Lauter) makes a deal with Kersey that stipulates that Kersey eradicate crime within Charlie’s neighborhood. Kersey does not talk a lot throughout the movie, which makes him somewhat similar to Goetz. However, Kersey’s actions have become routine by this point and the media is almost non-existent in the film. On the other hand, Goetz attracted a lot of attention from the media and welcomed its construction of his image. Moreover, Goetz was only charged with illegal possession of a firearm, thereby sanctioning his violent actions. In this regard, Death Wish 3 shows law enforcement’s conditional acceptance of extralegal activity, for police officers view it as an auxiliary tool. Moreover, the film’s environment and the material bearings of certain characters throughout the movie comment on contemporary politics and the struggle between “old immigrants” and “new migrants”; and the recreation of past events in a modern setting is also important to examine to understand the film’s conservative and patriotic outlook.
The neighborhood in the film is an environment where the old and new clash. Within Charlie’s apartment building, odors of stuffed cabbage cooked by a Jewish couple fill the hallways. An old couple own a local store that their neighbors often visit. Yet, the neighborhood’s security is never certain. Fraker’s gang members come and go as they please, sneaking through windows, raping and robbing whomever they wish. The Jewish couple are unable to protect themselves with a gun because police officers confiscate it from them. Goetz obtained his weapon from out of state and used it to protect himself, whereas in the movie Kersey purchases a mail-order gun, thereby undermining New York City’s gun restrictions. When Kersey kills gang members, citizens applaud him. Thus, the movie reflected a portion of the public’s approval of Goetz’s actions.
Old citizens like Kersey’s acquaintance Bennett (Martin Balsam) lament the departure of his friends. Bennett states, “I fix clocks, meters for the cab company, and I got a little place down the street. That’s what I do. I’m not gonna get run outta here.” As a World War II veteran, Bennett is a dutiful soldier who would not let the neighborhood be ruined; he serves his country on the battlefield and on the domestic front, building himself a company and working as a repairman. Bennett and others are representations of the Eurocentric construction of the “new immigrants” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, which included immigrants from Southeastern and Eastern European countries. The movie implies that they acculturated themselves into American society and became productive citizens. In this sense, they are “model Americans.”
The abandoned buildings and the brick piles that inhabit the neighborhood are implicitly blamed on the criminals who cause mayhem in the streets; what Bennett and others have symbolically constructed in the past is deconstructed by criminals and gangs in the present. The street punks mock the way that Bennett and others live. They are foreigners among people like Bennett, yet this fact does not preclude the existence of similarities between the two groups. Fraker’s gang does not observe the formalities of economic dispossession. Their existence was based on brute force, and they were marked as such by Luftwaffe earrings and Rising Sun headbands. As Timothy Brown explains, the skinhead subculture (and the right-wing politics of it) started to take hold within American punk music. Hardcore punk rocker Jello Biafra stated that New York was a center for skinhead punks during the mid-1980s. Kevin Dunn asserts that, within punk culture, the tearing of jeans and other articles of clothing over time was viewed as an act of rebellion against the ebb and flow of mass-market consumerism. The torn and raggedy clothing of Fraker and his gang suggests the harshness of living conditions within the neighborhood. Fraker’s gang is impoverished, yet the gang prizes ephemeral goods such as technology, illegal drugs, and other consumer goods. In the end, the neighborhood’s citizens join Kersey in fending off the invasion of Fraker’s gang and a motorcycle gang; the battle is ultimately a struggle between two different, though similar, ways of life. With help from Captain Striker and Rodriguez (the good Hispanic), Kersey defeats Fraker’s forces.
Overall, the films examined demonstrated the desire of some American citizens to punish drug traffickers and gangs. On film and in reality, communities became battlegrounds where productive citizens battled gangs; communities that upheld noble principles and desired order confronted disruptive forces that threatened communal harmony. Characters like Case Morgan and John D’Angelo represented people like Curtis Sliwa and Anthony Imperiale, who played important roles in mobilizing multiracial and white ethnic efforts towards fighting crime where there was a perceived absence of effective law enforcement. Within films such as We’re Fighting Back and Fighting Back and reality, the shaping of a group’s public image became integral to making a group appear non-threatening to the public order; the construction of a group’s narrative and exposure to the media also served the function of advancing political ambitions or persuading public officials. The films deconstruct the notion that African Americans and other racial minorities could only be criminals. Nonetheless, some people and politicians still held the notion that criminality was only a black issue (e.g. Willie Horton). In essence, these films suggest that justice is determined on a moral basis, and people have a right to dole it out to criminals.
From guest contributor Joseph Roskos