William DeMeo’s ‘Back In The Day’ Is A Black & Blue Love Letter To Bensonhurst

William DeMeo’s ‘Back In The Day’ Is A Black & Blue Love Letter To Bensonhurst
Photo by Robert D'Aleo
The cast of Back in the Day at the movie’s New York premiere. (Photo by Robert D’Aleo)

“You did Bensonhurst beautiful!” gushed Maria “The Ice Cream Girl” Campanella from the front row of a star-studded New York premiere of Back in the Day.

The screening Tuesday evening was followed by a Q&A panel with most of the movie’s cast, which included Michael Madsen, Shannen Doherty, Alec Baldwin, and Danny Glover. William DeMeo’s love letter to Bensonhurst (he wrote and produced, Paul Borghese directed) also brought together dozens of Italian character actors who look familiar, but you’re not sure from where, and dyed-in-the-wool Bensonhursters.

Back in the Day — which hits AMC theaters Friday — tells the story of Anthony Rodriguez (played by DeMeo), a half-Italian half-Puerto Rican boxer from Bensonhurst. In a twist on the usual boxing-film structure, Rodriguez wins the middleweight championship in the film’s opening sequence. He then returns to the old neighborhood for an interview with a reporter, and the bulk of the story is told through flashbacks.

Young Anthony (played by DeMeo’s son Cristian) hangs out with the neighborhood kids — his reckless best friend Matty, his crush, Maria, and Dominick, a gangster’s son, who takes every opportunity to remind Anthony that he doesn’t fully belong.

After Anthony’s alcoholic Puerto Rican father is run out of the neighborhood and his endlessly loving Italian mother Mary is killed in a hit-and-run, Anthony directs his rage at a pedophile butcher who harassed him, beating him to a pulp and catching the attention of local mob boss, Enzo (Madsen). Enzo takes Anthony under his wing, encouraging the youth to use his fists to transcend his difficult neighborhood and past.

As Anthony grows up, he struggles to stay on track as his reckless friend Matty (Joseph D’Onofrio) gets him into bar room brawls, his crush on Maria (Doherty) — now dating “made-guy” Dominick — puts him on edge, and the demons of his past threaten his psyche.

As in all boxing movies, our hero triumphs in the end, but at its heart, Back in the Day isn’t about the ring at all. The prizefighting storyline is secondary to a coming-of-age tale in the context of a changing neighborhood. The film touches on the murder of Yusef Hawkins — a turning point of sorts for Bensonhurst — after which racism and the mob’s influence wane, replaced instead by a new multi-cultural Brooklyn where mafiosos have been reduced to reality stars.

Though the film has some serious flaws, including some dialogue that might make you feel like you’ve been clubbed in the head with the characters’ emotions, anyone who grew up in Bensonhurst in the 1980s will likely be thrilled by the gleaming retro cars and familiar streets, and will be left with an overall sense of Brooklyn pride.

Bensonhurst natives we spoke to at the premiere agreed, telling us they immediately recognized DeMeo’s portrait of a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in flux.

“The way the things were, if you did something wrong, something could get back to the wrong person,” said Antonette Difresco, 37. “We have the gangs now, but at least then you knew who was who. Now you don’t know who anyone is.”