Gangs of New York

We went to see Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York Saturday night. It’s a powerful film, tackling a part of American history that is seldom covered in great detail–the violent early days of our largest city.

It begins in 1846 in a part of the city called the “Five Points”–so named, because it was the intersection of five streets: Cross, Anthony, Little Water, Orange and Mulberry. However, this was not the sweet melting pot of the American ideal. The “native” New Yorkers routinely fought the immigrant Irish for territory and money. Groups with names like the “Dead Rabbits,” “Roach Guards,” “Plug Uglies,” “Bowery Boys,” and “True Blue Americans” fought regularly to control the poorest and worst slums in the city and, perhaps, in the world.

Describing a visit in 1842, Charles Dickens wrote:

This is the place: these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking every where with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting?

Scorsese doesn’t sugarcoat his portrayal of the gangs or of their everyday lives, either. You feel the decay and rot, the inescapable poverty, the kill-or-be-killed grind of daily existence–and this is just the prologue! The hero, Amsterdam, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, watches his father die at the hands of Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis, who should be up for an Oscar for this). After a reform school upbringing, Amsterdam returns to the Points in 1863, seeking revenge.

The young man’s plot for exacting retribution on one of the most powerful men in New York intertwines with the events of history:

  • Boss Tweed and his political cronies using their offices to pit one half of the poor against the other and to rob them both.
  • Different police forces fighting with each other over jurisdiction and bribe money.
  • Volunteer fire departments clashing in the streets over the right to loot a burning building.
  • More and more Irish and, now, Chinese and other immigrants pouring off the ships to meet with the hatred of native-born Americans.
  • The Civil War bringing the threat of the first-ever mandatory conscription, with draft riots looming, as the coffins of the war dead come flooding home. Immigrants are given their citizenship papers at one table and signed up for the Army at the next.

It is a very violent movie but very accurate, I think, in its portrayal of the fashions, sports, music, and lifestyle of the mid-nineteenth century streets of New York. Anyone who doesn’t realize just how far we’ve come in forging a united nation out of the culture clashes and tainted democracy of the past should take a look at this.

[ Also seen at Blogcritics ]

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