The Urban Fortress on Film: Crime, Violence, and Securing the City in the 1980s and 1990s

Authors: Brian Tochterman*, Northland College
Topics: Cultural Geography, Urban Geography, Historical Geography
Keywords: Crime, Violence, Film, Popular Culture, Cities, Fear
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Maryland C, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper examines filmic representations of urban crime and violence in the 1980s and 1990s, and highlights the politics of the solutions offered therein. With a focus on Robocop, Colors, and Falling Down specifically, I trace their narratives from the urban crisis films of the 1970s. From the law-and-order discourse of George Wallace and Richard Nixon, for example, emerged filmic imitators like Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan, who patrolled the streets of San Francisco killing crazed hippies and begging crooks to make his day. While these tales added a heroic salve to the perceived problems of the urban crisis, Hollywood portrayed some cities as a lost cause in the 1980s and 1990s, including its hometown. Detroit, a city decimated by a host of structural forces, served as the setting a new type of crime fighter, Robocop. Despite its success, Robocop signaled the end of rational crime-fighting in cities overrun by violent denizens acting at random. Likewise, drugs, crime, and gangs rendered Los Angeles the most reviled U.S. city in the 1990s. On the one hand, this cultural moment provided fertile ground for the emergence of a new black cinema, including filmmakers like John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers, centered on showcasing the structural challenges faced by minority citizens. On the other hand, it allowed for a return to “great white hope” form through depictions of violent resentment toward demographic and thus cultural change within the city.

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