Cleveland According to Movies and Television

By  · Published on July 19th, 2016

Our perception of the Forest City having only seen it on screen.

All this week, Cleveland, Ohio, is being overrun with politicians, their supporters, and protestors of their platforms as the Republican National Convention is being held at the Quicken Loans Arena through Thursday. To help get a better sense of this “Cleve-Land,” as Howard the Duck calls it, we’re looking to entertainment, specifically movies and television, for what it can tell us about this city. If there’s anything we miss or misunderstand, blame Hollywood.

Cleveland Rocks

It’s the Rock and Roll Capital of the World, home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so it’s not surprising that, to an outsider, Cleveland primarily looks like a city where music reigns. You could make a nice concert with all the fictional bands based there, including Cherry Bomb from Howard the Duck, The Barbusters from Light of Day, the KISS cover band Mystery from Detroit Rock City, and Vesuvius and A.D.D. from The Rocker. And big acts from out of town, like Stillwater from Almost Famous and the title group of This Is Spinal Tap, consider the “Rock Mecca of the Midwest” a exciting and essential stop on any good American tour.

It Plays Ball

If you’re not into rock, Cleveland’s other passion is sports. Namely baseball and football. For the former you’ve got the Indians, who are depicted as purposefully terrible underdogs in the Major League movies and who are painted in a more positive light in The Kid from Cleveland, set right after their 1948 World Series win. The latter sport involves the Browns, who are prominently featured in Draft Day and Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie. There’s also apparently a boxing scene, as we see in Against the Ropes and Raging Bull, where Jake LaMotta has his first defeat at the film’s beginning.

It’s Great for the Whole Family

We hear there’s also an NBA team in Cleveland, but not from the movies (outside of documentaries, that is). However, hint of basketball in the Forest City is made by the appearance of Cavaliers star LeBron James in Trainwreck, in which he also sells his hometown as “great for the whole family” and highlights its sunsets and its significance as the place where Superman was created. Sometimes, movies most representational of a city are those not set there, such as with the Alan Freed biopic American Hot Wax, about the legendary DJ in his later, non-Cleveland days.

It’s Anytown USA

Outside of sports and entertainment, Cleveland tends to be shown on screen as home of the everyman and the working class. Whether it’s Sylvester Stallone as a truckers’ union recruiter in F.I.S.T. or the titular comedian’s relatively blue-collar employment in the offices of a department store on TV’s The Drew Carey Show, there’s a great appeal to the common man. And the common woman, making it a nice place for aging Hollywood types to settle down, as in the sitcom Hot in Cleveland. This is a city that was known for manufacturing, and residual Rust Belt scenery is visible in the crime comedy Welcome to Collinwood (in which a main character is a boxer), helmed by local boys the Russo Brothers.

It Has a Large Hungarian Population

Another filmmaker native to the area, Jim Jarmusch, features the city in his indie classic Stranger Than Paradise as somewhere out in the country for New York City hipsters to escape to as they visit one of the guys’ aunt and cousin. Who are Hungarian, because Cleveland once had the largest population of immigrants from Hungary in the US. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas is another who has represented that demographic. He was born in Hungary and raised in Cleveland and showcases some of that back story in the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama Telling Lies in America.

It’s a Hip City

While Jarmusch’s hipsters are not Cleveland residents, the city does have a reputation for being home to a certain kind of eccentric bohemian. That is, going by the biographical comic book adaptation American Splendor, based on the work of proletariat writer, cartoonist, and file clerk Harvey Pekar. The film also shines a brief light on fellow comics legend Robert Crumb, who lived there in the 1960s, and it makes Cleveland out to have been too small a city in the 1980s to even book the Hollywood comedy Revenge of the Nerds. For further evidence that Cleveland is, or was, a major site for underground counterculture, there’s also the 1970 hippie exploitation film Ghetto Freaks.

There Are Black People There

One version of that movie was sold as a blaxploitation picture, but it’s still mostly about white characters. In fact, other than its ball players, Cleveland tends to look mighty white on screen, save for a few exceptions. One is Uptight, Jules Dassin’s all-black remake of The Informer re-set in the inner-city Hough neighborhood and Cleveland’s steel mills, and it could still be Anytown USA but on the more urban end of the dial. The darkly lit crime film reminds us there were race riots a few years prior to its release. In this year’s Race, we can see the black slums of decades before, as Jesse Owens’s family moved to the city during the Great Migration from the South in 1922. And of course there’s the uplifting story of Antwone Fisher, whose real-life main character rose from a bad life in Cleveland to become a great success.

It Has a Criminal Background

This city is far from being squeaky clean, according to movies, which occasionally recognize Cleveland’s history of organized crime, as in the mafia picture Kill the Irishman and the hitman thriller Blast of Silence. The latter’s antihero protagonist grew up in an orphanage, which also seems to be (likely coincidentally) representational for Cleveland, as seen in Antwone Fisher (foster homes anyway) and more recent films Predestination and the local urban legend-inspired Gore Orphanage. Howard the Duck is an orphan of sorts, too, and his movie shows a seedy side of the city full of dangerous bikers and punks and bars where the entertainment has to be safely separated from the crowd by a cage. There’s also the 2015 true crime TV movie Cleveland Abduction, about the Michelle Knight kidnapping, and a number of the films mentioned above involve crimes, too.

The General Idea

Howard the Duck might actually have it all as far as what we tend to see of Cleveland in movies and TV. Whether a movie about an alien duck who lands on Earth and fights other aliens should be the defining picture of the place is for Ohioans to decide. But it has a rock band, a member of which is African-American, plus a guy wearing an Indians cap, a relatively hip immigrant/orphan based on a comic book, family friendly locales and characters, and a combination of safe and dangerous sides to the city.

Of course, there’s also the wonderful parody of Cleveland as a utopia to NYC’s dystopia in this bit from 30 Rock:

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.