Tuesday, February 1, 2011
February 1, 2011: Erased Riots
I try not to watch movies with my AmericanStudier’s eyes, at least not first and foremost; certainly there are films (like the two John Sayles ones about which I blogged early on) that tap into my scholarly ideas and passions quickly and fully, and in that case I feel no guilt about becoming an AmericanStudier while watching them, but for the most part, I think I’m able to watch a movie as an engaged and present audience member initially, and then step back after it’s done and consider AmericanStudies kinds of questions and connections further. But sometimes my scholarly perspective and connections do make it impossible for me to stay in the moment while watching a particular film or scene, pull me out of what the filmmaker is trying to accomplish and even, in the worst case scenario, pit me against the film’s choices or purposes. And I don’t think that has ever happened more fully or more strikingly than with the climactic sequence of Martin Scorsese’s historical epic Gangs of New York (2002).
The explicit focus of that climactic sequence is the moment when Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam Vallon can take his long-anticipated and much-delayed vengeance on Daniel Day Lewis’s Bill the Butcher (who killed Amsterdam’s father in the film’s opening fight but for whom he has worked for much of the film), but that personal plot climax plays out against the backdrop of (and is influenced and even further delayed by) the 1863 New York City draft riots. Scorsese’s choice to use those riots as his setting for this final section is, to my mind, extremely disturbing on a couple of levels: most overtly, because he takes a hugely complex and dark national moment and turns it into simply (or at least mostly) a set of complications for his hero’s plan for revenge; but more subtly and even more frustratingly, because the community that is rioting—the city’s Irish American immigrants—are (or have been throughout the film) DiCaprio’s people, the community that he has joined and fought for and with (not in the false way he has joined with Bill, but as his real home and family in the absence of his father), making the draft riots into an event that, if we stop to analyze who’s who as we’ve met them, we would in the movie’s logic have to identity with and even support.
It’s not possible to overstate how wrong that kind of sympathy would be. The causes of and factors behind the riots were certainly complex and multi-part, but at their heart they illustrated the resistance of the city’s Irish American population to being drafted into the Union Army during the Civil War. And in case the reasons for that resistance were unclear, most of the more than 100 New Yorkers who were killed during the riots were African Americans—not because they were taking part in the fighting on either side (the riots pitched the Irish community against the police and then the Union Army itself), but because the rioters were actively seeking them out and lynching them. Certainly there are, again, other social and cultural forces that were relevant too, many of which (like Boss Tweed’s corrupt political reign) the movie includes in its broad if (I believe) relatively superficial historical purview, and no analysis of the riots would be complete if it did not engage with those forces as well. But at the end of the day, these riots were not markedly different from the many other 19th century moments when significant portions of the white populations of American cities rose up in violent opposition to African American communities; and if anything, the fact that these riots took place during the Civil War, when many Northern whites and (by this time) blacks were dying in support of the rights of their African American countrymen, only highlights the ugliness of these events in contrast.
DiCaprio’s final voiceover in the film (set against an evolving New York City backdrop that culminates, controversially or at least shockingly given the film’s 2002 release date, in a view of the World Trade Center) notes that gang leaders and members like his father, Bill, and himself are no longer remembered in New York, “as if we were never here.” The moment (and thus the film’s) implicit argument is that we should better remember these New Yorkers, include them more fully in our history of the city and of the nation beyond it. Fair enough, Marty, but if we do so, we’d better make sure we include the draft riots too, and not as popcorn entertainment to cheer for. More tomorrow, on the fictional autobiography of an unnamed protagonist, published anonymously, that captures crucial historical and national realities.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The last couple minutes of Gangs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-8Lu7MRjQs
2) A great piece on the draft riots, excerpted from a seminal work of scholarship on African American life in New York: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/317749.html
3) OPEN: Any historical films that drive you crazy?