Beyond the Rocky Steps

This fall, several new movies show a Philadelphia the screen has long neglected.

A Black man raises his arm while reading aloud from a book.
The Inheritance. TIFF

Say “Philadelphia movies” and the same image pops into everyone’s head: Sylvester Stallone atop the Art Museum steps, arms raised in a victory V. As iconic representations go, it’s not a bad one, drawing a steady stream of tourists to reenact their own versions (at least in pre-COVID days), and the figure of a working-class striver making an impossible shot at the championship fits the perpetual second city’s soul. But as any single representation is bound to, Rocky—whether in movie, statue, or Instagrammed form—falls well short of encapsulating the city I’ve lived in the last 25 years, the first and only place I’ve ever felt I could call home.

There’s been no shortage of movies set in or shot in Philadelphia since 1976: Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, nearly everything by M. Night Shyamalan, and of course Philadelphia itself. But the closest the city’s come to a pop culture milestone in the last 40 years is the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—which, all too characteristically, is a show about a person who used to live there. For my first several years, it seemed almost impossible to meet someone who lived in the city who wasn’t born there, or at least migrated in from the suburbs. Philadelphia wasn’t a place you moved to, so much as one you ended up in, or left when you wanted to really get somewhere. There were loads of famous figures from the city, or anywhere close enough that local papers could hail it as a homecoming when they stopped in for lunch. But precious few made it big and stuck around.

The movies that were shot in Philadelphia also felt like they were just passing through, cashing in a tax break and grabbing a few helicopter shots of City Hall and Liberty Place before leaving town. Even Shyamalan’s movies, which are almost pedantic in their sense of place, felt like the product of a lifelong suburbanite: No matter how scenes were set on row house stoops, no matter how often someone shouted out a familiar street name, his stories never felt like Philadelphia, certainly not the funky, run-down, proudly self-deprecating city I’d come to love.

There were exceptions, albeit mostly on the cultural margins, like Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, a good chunk of which was shot in the late, beloved TLA Video. But it wasn’t until Creed, Ryan Coogler’s spinoff sequel to—what else—Rocky, that it felt like a filmmaker had taken the care to get the city right. It wasn’t just the cheesesteak date, or the shots of young Black men riding pocket bikes through the streets. There’s a scene when Michael B. Jordan slips into a club called Johnny Brenda’s to see Tessa Thompson perform. He’s late, and the club is crowded, so he squeezes his way along the bar and grabs a spot along the wall, underneath the steps that lead up to the balcony. It’s a place I’ve stood dozens of times myself in just those circumstances, and further evidence of how Coogler sweats the details when it comes to establishing a location, whether it’s his native Oakland or Wakanda.

It’s been a quiet several years since then—even the Creed sequel largely quit Philadelphia for Los Angeles and Moscow. At least until this week, when the city unexpectedly, at least from my homebound perspective, became the star of the fall film festival circuit. The Toronto International Film Festival debuted at least three films set in the city, one of which, The Inheritance, will be available for U.S. viewing tonight through the New York Film Festival, both online and at the festival’s Brooklyn Drive-In.

At Toronto’s virtual fest, Tommy Oliver’s documentary 40 Years a Prisoner, which HBO will air in December, took on the most notorious episode in the city’s recent history: the MOVE bombing, when, in May 1985, police dropped incendiary devices on a West Philadelphia row house occupied by a radical Black liberation group, killing 11 people (including children) and allowing the resulting fire to burn until it had destroyed 61 neighborhood homes. That day is already the subject of two excellent documentaries, Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn and Louis Massiah’s The Bombing of Osage Avenue, but Oliver mostly focuses on MOVE’s earlier history, leading up to the day in 1975 when police Officer James Ramp was killed during an attempt to evict the group’s members from a previous group house. Although it was never determined who fired the fatal shot, nine MOVE members were sentenced to decades in prison; two of them had a son, Mike Africa Jr., and he is 40 Years’ subject. Like Garrett Bradley’s Time, which opens in October, the movie is an object lesson in the damage done to families by mass incarceration, but Mike’s plight also has specific relevance to Philadelphia, where the subject of MOVE is still an immensely sore one. The white veteran journalists Oliver interviews still visibly fume at the memory of having to cover MOVE year in and year out, as the group feuded endlessly with neighbors and the police. It wasn’t until this summer that the city’s monuments to Frank Rizzo, the notoriously racist and authoritarian police chief–turned-mayor who is seen in 40 Years saying that evicted MOVE members “can leave standing up or lying down,” were taken down, during the wave of protests that followed the killing of George Floyd.

Two Black men ride horses through the streets of Philadelphia.
Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin in Concrete Cowboy. TIFF

That legacy is both literally and figuratively present in The Inheritance, a radical, didactic hangout movie by native Philadelphian Ephraim Asili. Set almost entirely in a West Philadelphia collective house like the ones that dot my own neighborhood, the movie is, according to Asili, something like a hip-hop remix of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, with theoretical debates and discussions about late-night hookups playing out in front of boldly colored walls. One moment, the house’s residents are reading aloud from a book on the Tanzanian socialist program of Ujamaa; the next, they’re playing improvised jazz. Several MOVE members, including Mike Africa Jr., turn up in person to pass on their wisdom; Shirley Chisholm turns up via archival footage to share hers. Although the movie was actually shot in a studio in upstate New York, it feels remarkably like it would to walk out my front door, past the anarchist meeting space and the neighborhood co-op and the afternoon crowds in the park blaring gospel or jazz.

Also at Toronto, Concrete Cowboy, the first feature by Ricky Staub, can’t boast that level of authenticity: Idris Elba, who plays the adult lead, is a Londoner, and the principal cast is filled with out-of-town ringers like Lorraine Toussaint and Method Man. The main, a kid forcibly relocated from Detroit by a mom who can no longer handle him, is played by Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin. (Given that both he and Elba have Netflix connections, it wouldn’t surprise me if the streamer picked up the movie, although no release plans have been announced.) But the story, based on Greg Neri’s novel Ghetto Cowboy, is based in a real subculture, the city’s tradition of stables run and used by Black Philadelphians, and Staub has filled out many of the supporting roles with real-life equestrians whose presence gives the movie a shot in the arm. (Someone should make a documentary about them, quick.) The depiction of the city’s urban blight isn’t something you’d recommend to the tourism board, but it’s real and instantly recognizable, eschewing landmarks for land. Philadelphia is often called the poorest big city in America, and that’s what you see here—it’s as central to any accurate depiction as stock shots of the Liberty Bell and Pat’s Steaks. It’s not a movie that makes my city look good, but it makes it look the way it is, and that’s good enough.