One hero’s story of fighting back against gang culture on New York’s streets

Vigilante Frustrated with the increasing rate of crime in 1970s New York, Curtis Sliwa and his fast-food restaurant colleagues decided to take citizen safety into their own hands – forming ‘The Guardian Angels’. Embraced by counter-culture and shunned by authorities, the group of 13 unarmed young men were quickly propelled to fame and their numbers grew into the thousands. 37-years on, the movement’s leader, Sliwa, opens up his dramatic story of life, death and risk while patrolling the dangerous subways and grim streets of the Bronx and beyond.

“Oh, the ugly 70s… It was an era of oozy-toting, dope-sucking, psychopathic killing machines laying siege to the Outer Boroughs and Manhattan itself… Even if nothing happened to you on your trip on the subway, you just felt so violated. All of a sudden you were living a life of fear.”

In the eyes of Curtis Sliwa, 1970s New York was nothing more than “a seething cesspool of crime, drugs, prostitution, decadence, and debauchery”. So when he found himself running night shifts as a Manager in McDonald’s in the heart of the Bronx - “It was a nightmare AM and a double nightmare PM” - he was inspired to create The Guardian Angels. The group were merely regular citizens, designed to protect fellow New Yorkers from the incessant violence that Sliwa felt had crept into the city’s bones.

With the support of his co-workers, he began to form a reputation that would later inspire many others to join their forces. “We fought off the Savage Nomads. We had created a sanctuary. We had created a zone, probably the only place in the Bronx at that time where you could go at night and be unfettered by any gang bangers, criminals, miscreants, or thugs or thugettes. I said, you know something? I should apply this to the trains.” And so The Guardian Angels, with their trademark T-shirts and red berets, were officially born.

Sliwa started out with only 13 men. As word spread that other citizens were following suit, numbers slowly grew. Though the Angels were continuously arrested and undermined by the police, Sliwa and his fellow members remained undaunted. “Now they've grown to more than one thousand. From New York to Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles. Across the nation, the red berets are helping the cities in fear.”

Later Sliwa meets Lisa, “a drop dead gorgeous statuesque woman” he instantly falls in love with. Keen to join the Angels “for the same reasons that a lot of other kids did, and that's we live in a rough neighbourhood and we didn't like what we were seeing”, Lisa grew to be a great inspiration for the group, leading many other women to sign up too.

“They're actually like angels. Guardian angels”, reflects a New Yorker to the press. Yet despite the Angels’ good will and continual protection of citizens’ welfare, Sliwa and others are constantly under threat. Having cracked down hard on New York’s chronic drug problem, Sliwa himself was cartel boss John Got Junior’s personal target, who twice made an attempt at his life.

“All of a sudden I hear a strange ruffling from the front of the car near the passenger side”, Sliwa recalls, as he was trapped in a cab. “Unbeknownst to me, a guy had been stuck underneath the dashboard awaiting this opportunity. He comes up with a 38. He's wearing a mask, an Irish walking cap, and he has his ass, his tuchus, on the back of the dashboard. All of a sudden he's aiming that 38 at my three-piece set, and I'm not talking about the knife, the spoon, and the fork.” After being shot three times, Sliwa managed to crash through the taxi window and was left for dead.

“I hope it says one thing on my tombstone. ‘R-I-P. He tried, he died.’ Because I certainly gave it my all.” From the charismatic man who lead a generation to rescue New York, Vigilante creates a powerful portrait of the city’s dangerous past, highlighting the bravery of all those who sought to rectify its decline.

Reviews and More

“Vigilante provides an entertaining overview of a real crime-fighting crusader” – NonFics

“a brash and entertaining story of good ol’ fashion New York City grit” – The Film Stage incredible story... a great look back at the Angels and the city itself” – Daily Mail

For a Q&A with Guardian Angels founder, Curtis Silwa, see here.

LaurelDOC NYC - Official Selection
LaurelDenver Film Festival, Colarado - Official Selection

The Producers

David Wexler - Director

David is President of Cinema 59 Productions. He is a writer/director based in New York City. Before his feature films (Evil Weed, The Stand Up, Anchors, Turtle Island, Last Supper and Vigilante), David created and produced the critically acclaimed show "College Life" for MTV.

Bradford Coleman - Editor

Brad is a Producer and Editor based in New York City. He has worked on such diverse projects as Mike Myer’s directorial debut, Supermensch, the Ugandan action movies of Isaac Nabwana, Death Row Stories for Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions/CNN, and the upcoming documentary Madonna and the Breakfast Club.

Making The Film

Director's Statement

The process of making Vigilante started 30 years ago when I saw my first Guardian Angel in a red beret downtown in NYC. I understood they were crime fighters, true super heroes working to keep my hometown safe. Decades later I had the opportunity to take Curtis Sliwa out to dinner and so began the process of ten two-hour-plus meals wherein I filled legal pad after legal pad with the most amazing stories. From these stories, we narrowed down our favourites, and over the course of a few days shot Curtis in a two camera set-up. Then Bradford Coleman and I spent about a year in an office in Union Square putting this all together, with incredible home videos, and archival footage.

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