80 Blocks from Tiffany’s
Actually, this documentary is an oldie but goodie – a cult classic. Re-released after 25 years on DVD, 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s resurrects the apocalyptic conditions of life in the South Bronx in the late 70s and early 80s that later gave birth to hip hop and its culture. Released in 1979, 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s focused on two street gangs, the Savage Nomads and Savage Skulls. The idea for the documentary came to director Gary Weis after reading “Savage Skulls,” an article by Jon Bradshaw published by Esquire Magazine which centered on both gangs. After convincing SNL producer Lorne Michaels to help him produce the film, Weis and a camera crew went into one of the deadliest areas in New York City – a combat zone where various gangs ruled the streets serving their own brand of justice and terrorism. Weis, Bradshaw and crew spent two weeks in the South Bronx speaking with and recording gang members, police officers, community activists and civilians.
The title, 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s, referred to the distance between the much glamorized jewelry store on 5th Avenue and the South Bronx. A viable walking distance for anyone that has the moxie, but too far the young men and women living a virtual Mad Max existence who had never been out of the Bronx. The dilapidated, burned-out buildings, plots of barren land, and abject poverty displayed in the film were light years away from the famed store turned iconic by a Truman Capote novel and Blake Edwards film in which the heroine claimed that nothing could go wrong in Tiffany’s. These young adults had no fabulous shelter to run to, so they created their own shelter, families, laws and opportunities in hellish conditions.
Stark…inexorable…undeniably real, 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s has received a following that far outreached the expectations Gary Weis ever had for the film. Part of the reason for its cult status is because of the participants in the film. These young men were angels with tattered wings and filthy faces who admitted to beatings, rapes, robbery and other crimes, yet their compelling presence demanded viewers to see past their deeds and peer into their souls. As mundane and clichéd as it sounds, they were the fruit of their environment, how could any viewer really judge having never experienced their life. These men and women were the displaced members of the civil rights movement that did not come up like George and Weezie, but instead got left behind. And as the dust settled from riots, arson, the flooding of drugs into their community and the economic climate of the day (which was just as dismal as our present condition) they were forced to fend for themselves by any means necessary.
The other component that draws people to the film is the portrait it casts on New York City, which serves as a microcosm for all inner-cities in the 70s. After watching this 67-minute narrative of barrio life, you will completely appreciate how granular this metropolis really was. Also, you will understand the correlation between the gang culture of NYC and its influence on the genesis of hip hop. These gang members were the catalyst and founding fathers of hip hop culture, patriarchs like Afrika Bambaataa, a founding member of the Black Spades who used hip hop to thwart kids away from gang life and the violence that accompanies it.
Mesmerizing from beginning to end, 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s is a collector’s item for anyone that loves New York or hip hop history, it is an essential slice of Americana that worth revisiting and should never fall back into obscurity again.
Photo and trailer courtesy of Audible Treats