3 Gangster Films That Explore The American Immigrant Experience

The United States has become the broth of international culture. Migrating from a mother country to the €˜land of opportunity€™ has become a trend for various nationalities through generations. This was €“ and continues to be €“ as a result of social and economic anxieties, from which different cultures hoped to escape. Post-World War I America, especially, developed into a lucrative to live, since €œa new conservatism was replacing progressive politics, a burgeoning industrial growth was signaling unparalleled prosperity, and new technologies were changing the face of society and communications€ (Rollins, 2003, p. 15). Cinema, unsurprisingly, also benefitted from this urban modernization, and the immigrant experience that affected America since its inception turned into one of the many subjects that filmmakers survey even until today. This article will explore how the immigrant experience is addressed within the Hollywood gangster genre in relation to the Irish, Jewish, and Italian ethnicities within three different films.

3. Gangs Of New York

Bill the Butcher

Irish Americans started immigrating to the United States many decades prior to the Revolutionary War, but their population peaked to new levels during the potato famine years of 1846 to 1855. The Irish American claims €œthe Irish made up 45.6 per cent of all immigrants in the United States (in the 1840s), and 35.2 percent in the 1850s€ (Kenny, 2000, p. 104). Additional factors like €œdiscriminatory British laws (and) the enclosure movement on the land€ (Rollins, 2003, p. 249) prompted Irish Catholics to settle in foreign areas, and their legacy has not been ignored in cinema. The Irish American has been portrayed in Hollywood gangster films as early as the The Public Enemy (1931), but one gangster film that specifically depicts this period of substantial immigration is Gangs of New York. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Amsterdam, an American-born Irish immigrant who witnesses the death of his father at the hands of Bill €˜The Butcher€™ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a €œfirst generation mob boss based on the real life William [€] Poole (1821-1855)€ (McCarty, 2004, p. 204). Amsterdam€™s father (Liam Neeson) is killed in a battle between Irish immigrants and the €˜natives€™, who consider themselves Americans solely due to their elongated ancestry in the United States. The film takes place in 1846 at this point of the narrative, which coincides with the early stages of the Irish famine. Naturally, the film then flash-forwards to 1862, when Amsterdam returns as a grown up and when €œone-fourth of the population of New York City [€] was Irish-born€ (Kenny, 2000, p. 106). The immigrant experience is directly addressed in the scenes following Amsterdam€™s arrival. They constantly endure public discrimination and humiliation by the Americans as soon as stepping off the ships, since they are branded as €œtargets of an American nativism that insisted on a homogenous society based on Anglo-Saxon, Protestant cultural values€ (McCaffrey, 1976, p. 85). As Amsterdam rekindles himself with his home city, the crowds of Irish laborers are immediately noticeable. McCaffrey adds that €œwomen took jobs as servants or shirt makers [€] (and) men worked as stable boys; bartenders, bouncers, and potboys in saloons; street sweepers; dockers; and canal diggers€ (1976, p. 64). As stated by Kenny, the Irish immigrants were clearly at the bottom of the social scale and €œhad to take whatever positions were available; they could not afford to be too choosy, given that most of them were virtually penniless and many were hungry, diseased, and dying€ (2000, p. 209). Amsterdam seeks to avenge his father€™s death by slaying Cutting, but, as said by Cutting himself, €œeverything you see belongs to me, to one degree or another [€] everybody owes, everybody pays because that€™s how you stand up against the rising of the tide€. Cutting has risen to the top of the gangster chain since the death of Amsterdam€™s father at €œFive Points, where the seeds of organized crime in America took root€ (McCarty, 2004, p. 205). Amsterdam€™s only feasible method of revenge is by befriending the enemy first and backstabbing him later. In order to accomplish this, Amsterdam has to prove himself through thievery at the lower stages of the gangster chain. Criminality amongst Irish immigrants rooted in America over a century before the events in Gangs. Kenny writes, €œat least 10000 of the indentured servants who left Ireland for the American colonies between 1700 and 1775 did so as convicts (who were) vagrants and petty thieves [€] sentenced to long terms of involuntary servitude and transported to America€ (2000, p. 21). Irish crime only intensified throughout the years, and from €œ1856 to 1863, at least half of the inmates of the Boston House of Correction were Irish€ (McCaffrey, 1976, p. 68). With crime a common practice in the north east, thievery is one of Amsterdam€™s virtues, such as when he stuffs his pockets with various costly materials prior to saving Johnny Sirocco from a fire €“ two acts which finally garner Cutting€™s attention. Cutting may dream of butchering every single Irish limb from his city, but he values €œsuch qualities as respect and honor, particularly in (his) enemies€ (McCarty, 2004, p. 206) €“ assets that €œwould later become hard, sometimes lethal, currency to the American mafia, which [€] is still a quarter of a century away from blossoming€ (ibid). He notices Amsterdam€™s potential after this, and he takes him under his wing. A sub-plot in the film has to be mentioned at this point, and it revolves around the drafts for the ongoing Civil War. Cutting and the natives despise the thought of the abolishment of slavery, which is expressed plainly when Cutting darts one of his knives to a poster of Abraham Lincoln. Amsterdam, meanwhile, expresses indifference (along with tones of curiosity) about the war when he is handed a flier that promotes enlisting for the Union. The drafting process was not as lenient and optional as portrayed in Gangs, since a new draft law €œpermitted men to purchase substitutes to satisfy their military obligations€ (McCaffrey, 1976, p. 68). Evidently, the Irish lower class could not afford these replacements. Scorsese foreshadows the film€™s climax using this Irish demoralization with the aforementioned examples. In short, Cutting eventually uncovers Amsterdam€™s true intentions. This eventually leads to a climactic battle, which mirrors the one at the film€™s start €“ a battle between Cutting€™s natives and Amsterdam€™s immigrants. However, €œthey all find themselves in the middle of the Draft Riots (of 1863), provoked by immigrant opposition to conscription by the Union Army, which destroy both gangs and irrevocably alter the immigrant experience€ (Nochimson, 2007, p. 207). In reality, €œthe Irish believed themselves to be in competition for jobs with African Americans€ (Kenny, 2000, pp. 125-126) €“ a factor completely ignored in the film. Kenny continues by saying that €œfor four days, mobs of Irish workers [€] roamed the waterfront in search of black workers, beating lynching, and driving them out€ (ibid), which is one of the historical deviations in Gangs€™ narrative. The film reaches its denouement after Amsterdam kills Cutting, and a montage of Manhattan€™s subsequent modernization from 1863 to the present ends the picture. One of the many messages delivered through this montage encapsulates the immigrant experience. The Irish immigrants after 1870 lowered €œthe Irish crime rate in the United States [€] and the Irish American community began to build a more respectable image€ (McCaffrey, 1976, p. 76). Nevertheless, other ethnicities would migrate to America in the near future, and they would cement their legacies €“ good and bad €“ into cities that would soon mature into major metropolises. Amsterdam€™s final words are, €œthe rest of time would be like no one even knew we was ever here€; the Jewish Americans prove otherwise.

I'm currently enrolled in the Film Studies program at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. If you haven't guessed by now, movies and media are as a big of a passion for me as they are for you and would love to hear what you've gotta say as well!