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If you Google “best movies about Washington D.C.”, there’s one thing most of the hits have in common: They’re filled in large part with movies about Washington, not ones about D.C.
If you’re a D.C. resident not employed at the White House or Congress—-or not a CIA analyst who takes a hands-on approach to fighting communists and drug cartels—-you’ll find few relatable characters in big-screen depictions of the District. Folks who live here don’t just lack congressional representation; they lack cinematic representation, as well. But 30 years ago this week, a movie came out that defied that trend, showing the lives not of the people who walk the halls of power, but of those who wait at the curb pick them up.
I’m not going to argue that D.C. Cab is a great movie, or even a good one. It wasn’t a hit when it was released in December 1983, and it would probably be a stretch to even call it a cult favorite, since whatever cult exists around it is probably limited to Mr. T completists and a cadre of local film obsessives. But apart from a few scenes at the start of Hal Ashby’s 1979 masterpiece Being There, it’s one of the few films that has looked beyond federal and moneyed Washington to the city that people call home, in all its ragged, trash-strewn early-’80s glory.
Still, by any rational measure, D.C. Cab is pretty terrible. The plot is standard ’80s underdogs-strike-back fare, with the titular cab company, a gang of misfits and outcasts trying to avoid being shut down by a corrupt, power-hungry hack inspector who’s in the pocket of the smug, satin jacket-wearing drivers of the Emerald Cab Company. It’s basically Revenge of the Nerds with taxis.
The script is ostensibly a comedy, but most of its humor is unintentional. The punchlines that hit most often are the ones given to Gary Busey, as the conspiracy-theorizing nutjob cabbie Dell, but even those seem mostly funny in hindsight. His lines come off as so bizarre (“If I wanted responsibility, I’d have become a damn sex surrogate!”) that it’s easier to imagine them as an improvised harbinger of his eventual public nuttiness than as anything a screenwriter actually put down on paper.
Meanwhile, Joel Schumacher, directing only his second big-screen feature, displays the same clumsy, cartoonish approach to action filmmaking that he’d later use to sabotage the Batman franchise. In one of the least convincing car chases ever filmed, the cabbies attempt to thwart a gang of kidnappers by beating on the side of their getaway van with clubs and bats—-while all of the vehicles appear to be hurtling along at roughly the pace of a leisurely drive through a school zone.
The tension between the federal city and the local town is on full display, whether it’s the entitlement of a rich political type getting a blowjob from a hooker in the back of Mr. T’s cab, residents from poorer sections of town heading to Embassy Row for jobs as service personnel, and just the simple playing out of lives, with marble monuments and governmental buildings as the background rather than the focus.
The movie also serves as a time capsule for a D.C. today’s younger residents never knew. A D.C. before U Street NW was revitalized—-the trash-strewn corner where Mr. T’s Solomon admonishes kids for their thrall to a charismatic drug lord with a sweet ride is in front of Bohemian Caverns. D.C. Cab’s headquarters is in pregentrification Eckington, and the place looks like a bombed out industrial zone. Bob, a cabbie played by Bill Maher pretty much as himself, stops while driving on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House for a quick protest. He’d have to walk to do that now.
What hasn’t changed much is the Florida Avenue Grill, which serves in the movie as the hangout of choice for the competing cab drivers, which looked then, as it still does now, like a throwback to an even earlier era.
There are much better comedies from the 1980s, much better films about urban decay and race relations in American cities (subjects that D.C. Cab also touches on). But none of those movies features Mr. T delivering his own smaller-stakes “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, or a fresh-faced Adam Baldwin arriving in D.C. not to sight-see, not to work for the government, not to prevent a terrorist attack, but just to make a life. For all its faults, D.C. Cab is our movie, because it gets the fact that this town has more sides than just the two on either side of the congressional aisle.