Film

Looking Back at Philadelphia’s Notoriously Racist Mayor Frank Rizzo

Recent protests have finally ousted longstanding local monuments to Rizzo. The 1978 documentary Amateur Night at City Hall draws out a history of resistance to his brand of white authoritarianism.

From Amateur Night at City Hall (1978), dir. Robert Mugge (all screenshots by Hyperallergic)

Early in Robert Mugge’s 1978 documentary Amateur Night at City Hall, a multitude of Philadelphia residents voice their feelings about Frank Rizzo, the former police commissioner turned mayor. “I think for an uneducated man, he’s really achieved quite a lot,” says a woman with hoop earrings. “To me, Frank Rizzo hasn’t done much for the city; he’s been in office for a second term, and he hasn’t done much of anything,” says a man with a black hat. “I think he’s doing a very nice job,” says a woman with blue eye shadow. “I think there’s a major question whether a strong cop is the right way to conduct municipal government,” says a man with a full beard. Each talking head expresses an opinion that opposes the previous one.

This brusque dialectical approach reflects the divisiveness around Rizzo, which is not unlike contemporary Americans’ feelings toward Donald Trump. During the 2016 presidential race, several journalists compared candidate Trump’s vulgar language and strong-arm bluster to Rizzo. (Upon being elected mayor, he told reporters about his plans: “Just wait after November, you’ll have a front row seat because I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a f****t.”) Rizzo’s name has recently reentered public discourse in light of the mass Black Lives Matter protests happening around  the country, with Trump himself invoking him. The rapid shift in public opinion and pressure on police brutality has led to the removal of a Rizzo statue and mural, longstanding symbols of white authoritarianism in Philly.

From Amateur Night at City Hall

Amateur Night, which received a beautiful restoration in 2016, traces Rizzo’s career by highlighting some of his worst moments. He cemented his reputation not long after being appointed police commissioner, sending cops with nightsticks to break up Black high school student protesters, supposedly telling officers to “get their black asses.” He had Black Panthers publicly strip-searched, engaged in a 15-month standoff with MOVE activists (the precursor to the police bombing a MOVE home in 1985), and increased taxes exponentially. Citizens successfully petitioned to remove him as mayor, only for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to declare the recall unconstitutional. Bear in mind, he was a Democrat during this time.

Although cronies such as state senator Henry “Buddy” Cianfrani (who was later convicted on federal racketeering charges) and Fraternal Order of Police president Thomas McCarey talk to Mugge, Rizzo himself does not. He despised the media, even though they made his reputation. “Rizzo shows all the true marks of a demagogue,” says ACLU leader Spencer Coxe. “He knows how to seize a situation and capitalize on it.” Seen only in newscasts, article photos, and public events Mugge filmed, Rizzo looms more as an icon than a human being.

From Amateur Night at City Hall

Rizzo ran on white identity politics but ignored civil rights, racial equality, and changing cultural norms. Whenever these issues arose, he responded with violence. As a cop, he raided coffeehouses and gay bars, and arrested hippies lounging in a park. As Philadelphia Inquirer editor E. Michael Pakenham observes, Rizzo’s white base shared a tendency to express “violent energy.”

Rizzo was serving his second term as mayor when Amateur Night was released, having almost been censored by a local public broadcasting station. Rizzo later tried to change the law so he could run for a third consecutive term, encouraging residents to “vote white,” but failed. He made later attempts at reelection, including a loss to Wilson Goode, Philly’s first black mayor, in 1983. Though he died in 1991, Rizzo’s legacy lives on, and not just in Trump. The fact that his public memorials have only recently been removed, after much protest, demonstrate how deeply ingrained his kind of politics are in the national consciousness.

From Amateur Night at City Hall

Amateur Night at City Hall is available to stream on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Google Play.

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