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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:
2)      A great piece on the draft riots, excerpted from a seminal work of scholarship on African American life in New York:
3)      OPEN: Any historical films that drive you crazy?


  1. Funny Gangs of New York is up for criticism. While not a fan, it's not historical inaccuracies or blatant hypocrisy of white-washing the draft riots bothering me, but Cameron Diaz.
    However, I take issue with the assertion Martin Scorsese is irresponsible by over-simplifying the draft riots. Scorsese’s narrations usually revolve around a singular character's struggle for identity. The protagonist, usually a “shady” character, is only identified to the audience after they have been seduced to logic and world view. If the audience reminds themselves crime is bad, the story does not work because they will not sympathize with these characters. This, however, is where Scorsese’s talent as a director (and story-teller) lies. It is his ability to identify and sympathize with a character whom audiences would never identify with in real life. I would cross the street to avoid most of them (Diaz). Think about The Departed. Who elicited the most sympathy from the audience? Nicholson. The other characters are static, or don’t occupy enough film and/or story demanding our sympathy. Damon’s character is ambitious, which audiences usually identify as flawed, and untrustworthy. DiCaprio’s character isn’t given enough screen time to develop a real relationship with him and while on screen, he’s acting a part; the audience isn’t supposed to form trust with him. Walhberg’s character is too busy announcing his sexual prowess to be an effective cop. (Interesting in the end he’s our hero – spoiler alert).
    Nicholson is not playing a good guy. He’s playing an ugly guy (based on a real life ugly guy – See Whitey Bulger), and that is seen from the start. The reason he is brought into this mix is to show not how Scorsese treats characters, but how he treats events. His opening narration is placed over another riot, the Southie Busing Riots. But that’s Scorsese, almost laughing at his audience, saying “go ahead hate him. You’ll feel sympathy for him right up until you find out he was the FBI snitch… spoiler alert. What Scorsese communicates (brutally) is we (white America) often tolerate racism to listen to rhetoric we wish to hear. Note his last line of that narration, “no one gives it to you, you have to take it.” This is an exceptionally American idea. Unfortunately it’s proceeded w/ a racial slur and followed up w/ a truly monstrous scene in which Scorsese proudly paints Nicholson as both villain and hero. Nicholson enters a bodega to collect tribute, threatens the owner/father, eye-rapes the clerk/daughter then bonds w/ Sullivan (Damon’s character) providing him groceries, which he pays for from the tribute. The audience is confused; this violent and racist man “takes care of his own?” He’s a working-class hero (to paraphrase Lennon). The problem wasn’t w/ the misrepresentation of people, but events, and that’s fair. Here’s my “however”. The Boston riots earned about one minute of screen time, but that image is burned in and the rest of the movie audiences will think, “this all started with moms throwing rocks at little kids on school buses.” That uncomfortable feeling of falling for the fallacy stays with the audience, long after the image is gone. Scorsese placed in the audience’s mind a painful reminder (to Bostonians at least) our history is ugly, and it is making our present ugly. However, Scorsese isn’t telling the story of the Southie Riots, or the 1863 Draft Riots, he’s telling the story of a man who is trying to find his identity in a conflicted community. His responsibility is not to inform, but to persuade. You want information, watch the History Channel or on second thought watch PBS. The persuasion is, within chaos, the protagonist can complete his goal and satisfy his ambition.
    Scorsese’s narrative prowess lies in his ability to misdirect the audience’s attention away from what they know and believe and place focus on what he wants them to accept, if only for two and a half hours. This is a common technique, but Scorsese does it well. He takes ugly and then paints it beautiful for his audience.

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for the thoughts! I agree with the take on Scorsese in general; although I'm not as big a fan of his films as you, I think he is good at using narrative in that way, and can see the connection to _Gangs_ (particularly in our complex sympathy-antipathy dynamic toward Bill the Butcher).

    But I do think _Gangs_ is distinct from _Departed_, and every other Scorsese film, inasmuch as it is centrally focused on recreating and representing this very distant (ie, not the 1970s or something similarly close to our own era) and very foundational historical moment and era in New York. In my reading, the film is at least as much a historical epic as it is a character study (and I think the closing images and statements about New York's evolution would support that reading), and so I think that in this particular case it's imperative that we analyze what history he includes and how he represents it, not only for purposes of characterization but as its own central subject. (And for that matter, the final minute suggests he is trying to persuade about the history as well--that we should better remember these origin points of NYC and perhaps America--making such analysis that much more relevant.)


  3. Hey Ben
    I see where you are coming from in respect to the singularity of Gangs. This is one of the few films of Scorsese's where he steps out of our recent past. However, I can only conceed to your assertion the narration is equally distributed between the development of America's identity and that of Amsterdam's in the last image montage of the film. I can't remember other parts of that movie that insist the American identity on the viewer as much. Granted there were many needless exposition scenes describing the gangs, their respective MOs and NYC in general. However, I cannot agree (and do not suspect that you are stating) that these bits of trite exposition are American identity developments.
    I'm not actually a Scorsese fan... actually I hate most of his movies, I just had to watch them because god-forbid Charlie Roberts find out we hadn't committed them to memory... he'd have us skinned alive. We read Scorsese like he was Dickens.
    Anyway, I get ya, I don't didn't think the riot scene was supposed to be central to the plot, just a device of it.

  4. Thanks for the further thoughts! I don't want to beat this horse too much, but I will say that I think that naming DiCaprio's character Amsterdam at least suggests that his story _is_ the story of NYC to at least an extent. So there's that part of it for me too.

    Again, thanks very much, lots to think about here.