In 1976, Philadelphia was swept into a bicentennial fervor as the country celebrated 200 years of existence. A new film—which aired over the July 4th weekend — ‘Bicentennial City’ highlights Philadelphia through the lens of the bicentennial events and culture of 1976.
This project was spearheaded and written by poet and educator Thomas Devaney, who co-directed with Matthew Suib and Aaron Igler. When Devaney was asked why he created this project, he said “the memory of the summer of ’76 retains a deep hold on the imagination of this city.” His interest lies in the differences and similarities between Philadelphia in 1976 and the city today. “In 1976 I was just a 7-year-old squirt, but I remember the moment when everyone stood-up at Penn’s Landing to see the tall ships approaching up the river,” Devaney explained.
‘Bicentennial City’ explores the difficulties of planning the events leading up to the bicentennial celebrations, it also spotlights Philly as a beacon of resilient communal activity. The film centers a number of lesser highlighted local stories such as the vendor wars of the 70’s, the queer Bicentennial, and the Save Chinatown Movement.
According to Devaney, this is not a standard documentary but rather an essay film. The distinction between an essay film and a documentary being that this is not an official narrative, but rather a retrospective of events and attitudes. “It’s more subjective in a way, it’s more personal in a way…” says Devaney adding “all of our facts are dead on though.”
In 1976 Philadelphia was a considerably different place than it is today. One of the early lines in the film is, “In 1976 Philadelphia was pretty much shit out of luck.” The city was nearly bankrupt.
Devaney stressed that the biggest lesson he learned in making this film was that “in Philadelphia the local story is always the larger story.” What Philadelphia faces can you expect to see? To name a few: former City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, Community Activist Mary Yee, and Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation Supreme Court Principal Justice – Rev. J. R. Norwood. The film highlights a diverse landscape of perspective.
Explained in this essay film are the ways in which the Bicentennial shaped our current city. The reminiscence of 1976 planning committees are plastered throughout the city from the giant Clothespin across from City Hall to the flags of each country along JFK Blvd to the famous LOVE sculpture.
“We had to make sure Frank Rizzo didn’t take over the film,” Devaney expressed. The Bicentennial took place in the midst of Mayor Rizzo’s second term, “everybody we talked to had a Rizzo story,” said Devaney. (One Rizzo story that you can expect to hear involves the Queen of England and the Philadelphia Art Museum.)
Novelist Lorene Cary said “‘Bicentennial City’ models democracy as it explores it. This is the best of Philly talking about our worst with dry eyes and care and curiosity.”
This movie was a collaborative effort produced in 2019 through the Haverford College Hurford Center/VCAM DocuLab Program where in Haverford and Bryn Mawr College students collaborated with Devaney and Greenhouse Media. Devaney expressed his gratitude towards the program for allowing him to produce his first film. The film can be streamed on WHYY.org anytime throughout the month of July.