30 years of D.C. Cab

December 16, 2013
Image from theartofmovieposters.com
Image from theartofmovieposters.com

Thirty years ago, today, a great film was released in movie theaters: D.C. Cab, an irreverent look at the life of a group of cab drivers in the District in the 80s. Starring Mr. T, it goes exactly how any movie from that time period does, for the most part. Lots of hijinxs, random nudity, cursing and casual racism that you might not see so overtly in theaters these days. But for all that, it’s an incredible film.

I saw it for the first time two summers ago, at an outdoor showing near 14th and U Streets NW. I thought it would be a good venue for my maiden voyage. I was wrong.  It was perfect.

The screen was parked against the left field wall of the Little League field that was our theater that night. And in short centerfield, I sat next to a group that was clearly somewhat new to the city. They provided a heck of take on the surroundings.

One declared that she was ‘over’ NoMa, which is why she was there that night. Another made it clear that Crystal City was her favorite outdoor film venue, but this was so much closer to her house. One guy showed up after claiming he had no idea where 13th and V Streets were.

Stereotypically, the crowd was filled with what many would call gentrifiers. Here we were, in 2012, watching a movie about D.C. released in 1983 at a rec center that likely more than half the people present hadn’t heard of before that day. They played something I like to call the ‘D.C. movie tourism’ game. I’m fairly certain you’ve played it before, too. It’s the one where you scream out random locations you can identify while watching a film shot in the region.

One of the more interesting parts of the film, though, were the issues that still ring true today. It’s still hard to make a living driving a cab. But if you know what you’re doing, you can get by. Sometimes it requires a hustle. And nearly 30 years after Charlie Barnett’s character Tyrone tried to pull an illegal fare at Dulles Airport in “D.C. Cab,” guys are still doing it.

For all the big differences that people like to point to about gentrification, some things don’t change if you’ve been here for the long haul. The faces might not look exactly the same for your whole life, but the struggles are plain.

And in the final crescendo of the movie, when Mr. T stands at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, and offers a somewhat ridiculous soliloquy about why he has to go save Albert (Adam Baldwin), who’s been kidnapped along with some diplobrat kids, I applauded.

“I’m sorry brother,”  Mr. T says, “I don’t have a minute. So you can do what you want to do. But I owe Albert for helping me find the things I never had before. Like pride and dignity. So I’m going out there after them, because the least I could find is my self-respect. And the most I could find is Albert and them kids. I don’t know about you, but I like what I became these past few weeks. And I ain’t never going back to being what I was before. Never!”

At the time, I remember specifically thinking that I was glad I’d waited that long to see the movie that speaks to certain themes of development and civic pride that still affect this city. Also, it’s an incredible visual love letter to a time in the city that only still exists in pictures and the back of our minds. I’m forever indebted to my friend @MalnurturedSnay for introducing it to me.

To most people, the movie is just a cult classic, an oddity among a slew of films with stories based in the nation’s capital. But, if you go to Florida Avenue Grill these days, there are still menu cards with specials on them, that use imagery from the film. And, the soundtrack might just be the best collection of random 80s nostalgia tunes ever put in one place. According to Wikipedia, the title song by Peabo Bryson “reached #53 on Billboard’s Hot Black Singles chart in March 1984.” And, again, not to be forgotten, Mr. T in a lead role. You’ll also see some other faces you might recognize.

Even if you’re not from the area, this movie is a keeper. Start a new holiday tradition: watch D.C. Cab. I pity the fool who doesn’t.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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Tom Jackman | December 16, 2013