2016-11-16 / Features

Astoria On Location: Rikers Island In Movies

Aerial photo of Rikers Island, seen from the North. Aerial photo of Rikers Island, seen from the North. Rikers Island. While it may be a controversial topic nowadays in terms of solitary confinement, the treatment of young adults and ESL (English as a second language) prisoners, it remains a distinctive identifier of New York City and specifically, Queens. Although it is technically considered part of the Bronx, the only possible way to get onto the island is by bridge, the entrance of which is located in Astoria. Just go straight down Hazen Street and 19th Avenue, where you’ll find a rather welcoming entrance to the bridge, immediately adjacent to a baseball field and a bowling alley.

While it may have its own connotations that it brings with the name, Rikers Island is known as the world’s largest disciplinary community, and is often found in movies and television for that very reason. Think of any New York City-based movie or show where the character finds themselves in trouble with the law, and the odds are there’s a shot of Rikers Island, or at least the prison system is mentioned. Below are some of the most recent and top films to feature the system and outside shots of Astoria.

In “Tower Heist,” director Brett Ratner was able to film in the actual facilities of the island, producing several authentic scenes with his cast. Exteriors of the island and driving through Queens can be seen when Ben Stiller’s character Josh bails out Eddie Murphy’s character, Slide, a man who found himself on the wrong side of the law, but whose knowledge can help Josh bring down a con man. Later on, interiors of the island can be seen with Alan Alda’s character, Arthur, locked up behind bars, taking heat from Josh and Slide.

Robert De Niro finds himself around the island often, sometimes when he’s playing a cop, and others when he’s playing a criminal. Some of his films that include scenes from Rikers include “Analyze That,” where he plays a mobster who confides in a psychiatrist, played by Billy Crystal. The film starts out with De Niro’s character Paul Vitti serving time in Sing Sing, and while the exterior gates of the prison are truly from Sing Sing itself, the interior shots between Vitti and Crystal’s Dr. Sobel were shot on Rikers Island. In another De Niro film, “15 Minutes” features the actor as a police officer, traveling to Rikers to question someone for information. While the exterior shots all show parts of Queens and the Bronx, there’s just one problem: the bridge is the only way to get to the island; the film incorrectly showed the actors getting on a boat.

In keeping with this gangster film theme, Al Pacino and Sean Penn starred in “Carlito’s Way” which conveniently has a major plot point surrounding Rikers Island. David Kleinfeld (Penn) tricks Carlito Brigante into attempting to execute a prison break for a client, featuring excellent shots of the bridge, as well as surrounding areas of Astoria and Steinway. This scene is similar to the one in The Anderson Tapes where Sean Connery’s character is released from the prison and walks out.

While it may not be something we see every day, it still is part of our neighborhood and, for all its reputation and notoriety, it is still on our map. Next time you watch a prison movie, look closely for some telling signs it might very well be our own Rikers Island.

—Catherina Gioino

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