Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gangs of New York

I was watching Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York yesterday on Netflix and, while the movie doesn't have anything specifically to do with the arts, it nonetheless provides a glimpse into the class conflicts and divisions in mid-19th century New York City.

For those who haven't seen the movie, it opens in 1846 and shows a battle over the Five Points area of NYC between Irish immigrants and the "nativists" - Americans who were born on U.S. soil and believe that immigrants should have no right to live in America. I won't give away the plot, but it is basically a tale of revenge and justice between the son of one of the Irish immigrants (Leonardo di Caprio) and "Bill the Butcher" (Daniel Day-Lewis) the nativist leader.

Some interesting things I got out of the first part of the movie:
1. Scorsese's portrayal of NYC is shocking, even for someone familiar with history. The complete squalor that the immigrants live in is stunning. This squalor is also sharply contrasted with the decadent lives of the rich in another part of town.
2. The Irish, most of whom are very recent immigrants, have a starkly different culture from other Americans. They have strange rituals and dances, and some in particular "come from a deep part of the old country, and no one knows what they're saying, but they love to fight the police."
3. Bill and his nativists, rather than simply wiping out the immigrants, do their best to assimilate them. When the movie jumps forward to 1862, Di Caprio's character finds that many of his father's most loyal followers have become acolytes of Bill. They now wear the clothes of the nativists, suppress and exploit more recent Irish immigrants, and do their best to eliminate their own Irish accents and origins. This seems in line with mid to late 19th century thinking about "educating" audiences and essentially, "making them like us."

So, I'm not saying that Gangs is a great film or entirely historically accurate (though it did win some awards for production design and period accuracy), but it is worth seeing at least the first 45 minutes if you haven't seen it before.

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