The Other Columbus: Hollywood's Columbus

Scott Woods
John Travolta filming “I Am Wrath” outside Olde Familiar Barber Shop on Parsons Avenue

In an attempt to break free of the incessant din of the internet telling everyone what they should like, I decided to re-watch '80s sitcom “Family Ties.” Its appeal lies in no small bit of nostalgia, but most important now was being a show that absolutely no one was talking about. I could watch it in peace without the white noise of think pieces, and at whatever pace I desired.

And then there was the fact that it was set in Columbus.

The setting was inserted multiple times throughout the show's seven-season run, tossing in various regional Easter eggs: the random Ohio college sweatshirt here, a now-reproved Cleveland Indians jersey there. Alex P. Keaton's Columbus was mostly a suburban bastion, devoid of people of color or social ills — a Reagan-era petri dish of Americana winking at the country's self-devouring hypocrisy. What better place to serve so well-meaning and self-centered a buffet than Columbus, capital of a state billing itself at the time as “the heart of it all”? Indeed.

This got me to thinking about other ways Columbus has been portrayed in cinema, and what those representations were meant to convey to an audience. When you place a politically mixed family in the middle of Ohio, you're adding a layer of averaged-out American values. Columbus has always been a key test market, but now it's a self-aware test market, and the testing has become a branding contest.

In the recently released “Juanita”(2019) — a movie so bad Netflix shelved it for two years — we are confronted with an aesthetically dishonest Columbus: non-existent streets, wrong buses, no references. More, painting Columbus as a ghetto from which to escape probably isn't the best tourism campaign.

My favorite Columbus appears in John Travolta's “I Am Wrath” (2016). It features the most hilarious Columbus to date (and I've watched the dystopian “Ready Player One”). “Wrath” utilizes the opening credits to establish Columbus as a violence-riddled warzone, where random citizens regularly shoot at police and participate in gang rumbles. Real Columbus possesses some questionable civic characteristics, but South Central Los Angeles on steroids it ain't.

The Columbus of “Family Ties” remains the most representative. The Keatons live in a bubble called Columbus, and the way the characters navigate even the worst social ills — gentrification, racism, sexism — all end in a pat and forgettable way that digs painfully into the ribs deeper than the sitcom intends. This fictional family, whose politics are not only a feature but run the spectrum, is dismissive in its resolutions, collectively opting to reseal their bubble. Observing how power works in my Columbus — designed neglect, feigned ignorance, political reprioritization — is a state of repair with which I am unfortunately familiar.