The Media’s Fixation on Boston

Photo by Robbie Shade.
Written by Emilio Domenech

The media’s depiction of Boston over the past few months has shown the city as closed-off and troubled, which isn’t fair to those of us who live here.

By Emilio Doménech
BU News Service

Last week, “Late Night with Seth Meyers” aired the trailer for “Boston Accent,” a fake movie where Meyers portrayed every stereotyped character the city — as a film or TV set — has offered over the years. In order to laugh at it, audiences needed to do a cultural decryption of the jokes. And most of the responses were condescending towards Bostonians.

But nobody digests these jokes the same way. Our cultural understandings are built upon what we watch, read or listen to. The city’s reputation has been built on history and cultural representation, and this last year has been proof of that through films like “Black Mass” and “Spotlight,” which both deal with how closed off the city is to itself, and how Bostonians deal with their problems.

Whether those are depictions Boston natives like, whether they are truthful or a misrepresentation of the city, they are the images most foreigners will deal with. These cultural references go directly to what I call a “tower of beliefs.” It’s a tower that can get higher or be destroyed in a second.

My Boston tower has also received support from TV sitcoms like “How I Met Your Mother,” films akin to “The Departed,” stand-up comedians and, for the most part, Boston friends who taught me from their ivory towers while I lived in Spain. Now, my perception of Boston is, even after six months living here, that there is a shady part of the city that is impenetrable to outsiders. And that isn’t fair to the city at all.

Take for instance “Black Mass,” where a Southie FBI agent named John Connolly collaborates with one of the most prominent criminals of the city — the infamous Whitey Bulger —who was raised in the same neighborhood as him. From the beginning, Connolly’s character acts as he owes Bulger something because of the roots they share. And even at the very end, he prefers to keep his mouth shut when talking to the police rather than negotiate his 40-year prison sentence. Those Boston ties between them were tighter and harder to explain without a deeper understanding of the city.

Something similar happens in “Spotlight,” where a group of journalists from The Boston Globe follow a story about a systematic cover-up of a child molestation scandal set up by the Catholic Church in the early 2000s. There, a fictional character named Pete Conley tries to convince reporter Walter Robinson not to pursue the story, as if there was a “greater good” for Boston that the story would ruin, and that the journalist had a responsibility to protect it because he was raised in the city.

But the most polarized views of Boston have been said by outsiders linked to those films. Josh Singer, who wrote the screenplay for “Spotlight,” said to Variety: Boston’s got “a slightly clannish feel.”

“Black Mass” director Scott Cooper also met with the magazine and said Boston was unlike any city he had been to in America, and that it’s extremely tightly knit. Neither of them were born or raised in Boston, but they have been major players in the films that are bringing Boston back into the spotlight (pun intended).

Yet for some, Boston is not just closed to itself in 2015, but centuries from now.

Take “Fallout 4,” a post-apocalyptic video game set in 2287. This game focuses on a mysterious organization called The Institute —a modern-day M.I.T.— which is accused of kidnapping children and producing androids. The game came out three months ago and sold more than 12 million copies at launch. Now Boston is the scenery for millions of gamers playing in their homes.

But not every depiction shows the city as closed off. At the end of “Spotlight,” the team wrote the story —one that wandered the Globe offices for a long time before being properly analyzed. That final fight to publish represents an intent to deal with mistakes, as well as scars of the past. And that’s quite the blow for our towers, the condescending viewers.

Last November, Ben Affleck was back in town shooting his next film, “Live by Night,” which is set in the Prohibition era and is (not surprisingly) gang-related.

Whether it poses a new light for Boston is yet to be seen. Let’s just hope Seth Meyers has different themes and characters to deal with the next time he decides to mock Boston. Maybe then the outsider’s tower can start to look a little bit more like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

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