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CITY OF HOPE (director/writer/editor: John Sayles; cinematographer: Robert Richardson; cast: Vincent Spano (Nick Rinaldi), David Strathairn (Asteroid), Tony Lo Bianco (Joe Rinaldi), Joe Morton (Wynn), Barbara Williams (Angela), Bill Raymond (Les), Angela Bassett (Reesha), Stephen Mendillo (Yoyo), John Sayles (Carl), Louis Zorich (Mayor Baci), Kevin Tighe (O’Brien), Josh Mostel (Anthony), Jace Alexander (Bobby), Todd Graff (Zip), Frankie Faison (Levonne), Gina Gershon (Laurie), Jojo Smollett (Desmond), Ray Aranha (Retired Black Mayor), Anthony John Denison (Mike Rizzo), Gloria Foster (Jeanette), Bob North (D.A.), Chris Cooper (Riggs); Runtime: 129; Samuel Goldwyn Co.; 1991)
“I found the romance between Spano and Williams to be very believable and moving.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Sayles and his ensemble cast present an intensely dramatic political story of a corrupt and decaying fictional city in New Jersey, ironically called “City of Hope.” The film is crowded with at least thirty characters trying to tell their urban horror story. They range from a crazy man (Strathairn) raving in the street as a sort of Greek chorus; both white and black street kids fending for themselves; honest and dishonest policemen; a jogger as a vic; crooked politicians; and, a troubled builder. The film also handles a love story, as this bleak look at inner-city life puts everyone’s feet to the hot coals.

There are interconnecting stories with the main one involving a confused twentysomething, Nick Rinaldi (Vincent Spano), who quits his soft job his father secured for him because he is rebelling against how his father, Joe (Lo Bianco), a builder, uses his political connections to make deals. Nick pulls a foolish electronics warehouse robbery to pay off his gambling debts, along with his buddies Zip (Graff) and Bobby (Jace). It’s organized by someone he hates, a sleazebag small-time crook and owner of a crooked auto repair shop, Carl (Sayles). The robbery is botched but Nick escapes. Nick is later fingered by the crippled Carl to a politically ambitious cop, O’Brien (Tighe), who is only looking to advance his own position with the district attorney. This charge against his son puts his builder father, who is also a slum landlord, in an awkward position. As a political favor to the mayor to get the charges dropped, he must have his slum buildings torched. New developers want that site to put up some Japanese backed luxury buildings and a shopping center to revitalize the decaying city.

On the night of the robbery Nick falls in love with Angela (Barbara Williams), a single mom, who is divorced from her abusive husband Mike (Denison). Mike is a beat cop who has it in for Nick because of his involvement with his ex-wife, and he will go gunning for Nick even after his dad got the charges against him cleared.

The bleak story also deals with a former professor, black city councilman, Wynn (Joe Morton), who is a reformer trying to change things in an honorable way but is being attacked by the militants in the black community for being too white and by the establishment for being too clean. Wynn is trapped in all the political payoffs that come with his office, as he must bargain and compromise himself with the city administration to get things for his community.

When two black kids are hassled by the police they decide to beat up the first white person they see, a professor (Raymond) at the local university out jogging. The kids are arrested, but they claim the professor made homosexual advances to them. This puts Wynn in a difficult spot, as he knows the kids are lying but he must take advantage of this situation politically to get what he wants for his constituents.

Everyone must compromise themselves or totally risk losing what they want. They not only compromise their values, souls, or beliefs, but they must also compromise their happiness. This ambitious painting of a desperate city and its fragile people, often makes salient points. It varies from being like a soap opera to at times offering some very touching dramatic moments. It’s a big, messy, angry film, that is both powerful and sad. And like everything in America, it’s ultimately about black and white relationships. The film offers observations and not answers.

I found the romance between Spano and Williams to be very believable and moving. Also, the relationship between Spano and Lo Bianco seemed to sum up the film. Their love for each other was real, but they just didn’t know what to do for each other. The Spano character had drifted for too long without trying to become somebody and had become dependent on drugs and gambling to fill a void in his life; and, when he fell for the right girl and made contact with his dad, at last, it was too late for him to be saved. Is that what Sayles is saying about the future for those old American cities, where the immigrants lived out their American Dream? Or, is he holding out some hope that the next generation will change for the better? It’s difficult to say what Sayles thinks, as he seems to want to leave that up to the viewer. But the most pertinent film quote comes from the mugger’s mother, who tells her son: “You must stand up for what is right!”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”