City of Hope: John Sayles Urban Tale

John Sayles’ most ambitious film to date, City of Hope chronicles a decaying town in urgent need of spiritual change. The film confronts a modern urban America, beset with explosive racial and class tensions, as well as crime, political corruption, police brutality, and an absence of leadership.

A dense canvas with numerous subplots, the film was shot in Cincinnati for $5 million, using 40 locations and 38 characters. The fictional locale–Hudson City, N.J.–stands in for any average-size city. The multi-layered narrative interweaves stories of cops, politicians, contractors, teachers, single mothers, teenagers, hoods and muggers.

It’s a sociological portrait of urban life at the end of the century, when the old political system and old ethnic formations are losing their validity. The Italian-American and Irish-American coalitions are breaking up in the face of a new demographic force: the African-American. Wynn (Joe Morton), a black middle-class councilman who aspires to become the legitimate leader of the embattled constituency, is contrasted with the former lazy black mayor and with the corrupt white mayor.

Nick (Vincent Spano), the substance-abusing, inarticulate son of a powerful contractor, is in desperate need of self-esteem and parental love. Nick’s father walks a thin line between corruption, a condition for his survival, and his code of ethics; he lets thugs burn down a building so that he can keep his son out of jail. A minor incident, an attempted burglary of a TV store, sets off a series of events that link all the residents.

There are no “heroes” in the film, only compromised individuals, each facing a moral dilemma. Two black adolescents, who beat up and mug a white college teacher in the park, falsely accuse him of making sexual advances. The victim, a happily married professor of urban affairs, is urged to drop the assault charges in order to prevent an explosion in the black community.

Sayles’ canvas is admirably wide, even when the treatment is schematic and the reconciliations too neat. A socially-conscious film in the vein of Hollywood’s message films, City of Hope is also effective as a touching family drama.

To convey the constantly-on-the-move characters, Robert Richardson’s alert camera never stands still, drifting among individuals as their paths cross–long master shots demonstrate the interconnectedness of all the city forces.