(I haven’t had much time to write so the night described is from a couple of weeks ago.)
The week that the war started I made a bad movie choice. My friend Southbay* and I are good movie companions because we both have pink sparkly wallets and enjoy seeing movies like "8 Mile" that our pretentious friends are too good to see. We had a movie date scheduled way in advance, but current events intervened and we decided to go to the anti-war demo instead.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the anti-war demo. There we were on Market and Powell a little after 5 PM and almost no one was there. Sure, there were the requisite hippies with drums, the sectarian paper sellers, the t-shirt guy selling "No War on Iraq" and "We Support our Troops" shirts, but only about 10 other people milling about. There weren’t even any more than a couple of cops. No sign of Officer Powder. Something was wrong here.**
Of course, my new wingnut nemesis, Anti-Semite Sam***
was there. He attracts photographers and somehow he kept walking around so that we’d be in the same general area. Local folks will probably understand**** that the last thing I need, as a legal officer of my workplace, is to get photographed with an avowed anti-Semite, so Southbay and I wandered away from the not-really-a-crowd.
After another 15 minutes of people (not us) making pathetic attempts to chant, we said fuck it. Back to plan A. Let’s go see a movie. Checking the times and an actual newspaper, we determined that the only movie we both were interested in seeing, and that was playing soon, was Gangs of New York.
OK. In retrospect, it might be easy to say, "You know, it’s not a good idea to see an extremely violent movie less than a week after war starts". For some reason, that wasn’t clear to us at the time.
The opening scene was extremely bloody. Fountains of blood. Flying teeth. Gushing blood. Lots of thwacking of hard, sharp objects on bone and flesh. Bloodsicles in the snow. I kept flashing back on the pictures of dead Iraqis I’d seen earlier in the day and I’ll admit, it was upsetting in a way that I don’t usually feel at the movies.
Having said that, I enjoyed most of the movie. I mean, it’s a typical revenge story/costume drama, but it tells the history of a time in America that is relatively not discussed very often. I though Daniel Day Lewis was really good as the Butcher. It shows the Irish in their non-assimilated period, which is always worth looking at.
There is one part, however, that totally cops out. While Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day Lewis are preparing their showdown, the NY draft riots begin. Because they are isolated and preparing for battle, they get left out of the lynchings and anti-Black violence that historically-speaking, both would have supported and/or participated in. To further absolve the main characters, who we are supposed to like to varying degrees, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Irish gang even has a Black member, presented matter-of-factly and without drama. Or historical context.
While the Irish might not have been accepted as equals to the ruling class at the time, does anyone really argue that their interactions with Black people in the 1860s were uncomplicated? I would say that there were undoubtedly exceptions
and incidents of cooperation and/or involvement by some Irish-Americans in the abolitionist movement, but in a movie telling an "untold story", the Black gang member (who gets lynched by other poor, probably-Irish, ghetto dwellers) seems to be able to join the Dead Rabbits simply because he chooses
This is a relatively minor part of the movie, but it makes to story less intelligible. If some poor Irish so easily accept Black people into their social organizations, why is much of the rest of the Black population of Manhattan being attacked, lynched, burned out of their homes and fleeing for their safety? While, truth be told, I didn’t really expect the suffering of Black people to be more than an ornament and plot device for "Gangs of New York", I think it even trivializes the position of the Irish. True, it does show Irish immigrants getting fresh off of boats and being sent, instead of the rich, to die in a war for their new country which promises them nothing but squalor. That they take their anger out on those even further down the political food chain is foreshadowed and seen as an inevitable consequence of political moves made beyond their control.
Leonardo has the Great Man thing going so somehow he is above racism. The rest of the Irish have Mob Mentality so they are racist. White people (We) can identify with the Great Man, of course, and tsk tsk about the Mob, even if we understand the bigger powers in play. All I’m saying is, picture a movie where the sympathetic, heartthrob hero, who we’ve learned to love, participates in his community’s racist violence at the climax of a 3 hour movie. Would that be seen as perpetuating racism? Or as a truer picture of how rooted racism is in American history?
Or how about showing Irish Americans who took a principled abolitionist position? Leonardo’s position is a "colorblind" one hard to differentiate from popular present day conceptions of how to view race. That is: not to see it at all. True, there are always anachronisms in these types of movies, but I would argue that this one is there to make race issues stay firmly in the past.
Believe it or not, I actually did enjoyed the movie. Longtime readers should know by now that I dwell on the negative. It makes me happy.
*I need an LJ nickname for her because I have mentioned her a few times. I hope she likes this one.
**As it turns out, contrary to traditional Left culture, the march left promptly at 5 PM. We had missed it.
does a good job describing him here, so I don’t have to.
****Sorry, I am not going to explain it if you don’t. Don’t hate me.