Sometimes the trigger is poverty, other times ethnic alienation. Even boredom can play a factor is causing the coagulation of a gang. If a group of people find they cant fit into society, human nature takes over and they create a societal structure for themselves. The Italians, the Irish, and most non-white ethnic groups have had to do it States. In France, it’s the Algerians. Triads, Yakuza, Mau Mau, Tamil Tigers – pick any continent and you’ll find a disenfranchised sector that, when they are excluded from the mainstream, they set up their own structure and rules. Created for the purpose of protection, enforcement of those rules in the interest of self-defense often crosses the line with regards to what is acceptable to the mainstream. As most of the businesses run by gangs rest outside the circle of what is legal or ethical, clashes with the establishment and violence is inevitable.
Gangsters make terrific antiheroes for the simple reason that writers can make them full blown characters, complete with insecurities, drive, passion and fearlessness. Many start out as quite ordinary souls looking for the same things as the rest of us. And then they take that extra step, over the edge. Like the song says, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
This genre casts such a broad net that I’ve deliberately forced myself to be diverse in my selections, regrettably omitting greats like The Krays, City of God, the entire stream from the genre’s heyday in the 30s, and any film that crept into the POV of the law, e.g. Donnie Brasco.
Here are my five:
Bonnie and Clyde – Arthur Penn (1967)
“Hey, Boy! What you doin’ with my mama’s car?” So begins the seminal film snatched the steering wheel from Hollywood establishment control in a year (1967) that was the benchmark when “new Hollywood” announced its arrival, literally in a burst of gunfire. Fifty years ago next week August 4th 1967, the Montreal Film Festival unspooled a small film about which Warner Bros. wasn’t particularly excited or even planning to promote. Its style and substance caught everyone, from critic to ticket buyer, by surprise. Sympathetic criminals – murderers, in fact – a style that deftly combined violence and comedy, and a huge dollop of the French New Wave set off controversies galore, arguments between critics, and, yes, put the beret back in women’s fashion. It was a view-changing moment for yours truly, too. And I can still recite the entire script by heart. “Don’t sell that cow!”
The Godfather – Francis Ford Coppola (1971)
I should probably include Parts II and III with this entry as well, but won’t because the styles are completely different. The original was adapted from a portion of Mario Puzo’s potboiler novel and it was another case of a beach book becoming a cinema classic. Gordon Willis’ dark photography added menace by the pound and Carmine Coppola’s score infused an atmosphere that turned the entire exercise into high opera. Part II (1974) leapt back and forth between the struggles of the father to make it in the New World and the struggles of the son to come to terms with his father’s choice of direction. Although Part 3 (1990) was an anemic misfire (unworthy of a Roman numeral), derivative in content and somewhat lazy in style, the entire trilogy holds a worthy place in gangster – and Hollywood – history. It’s the first film, however, that stands above them all.
Goodfellas – Martin Scorsese (1990)
Twenty years after Don Corleone collapsed in the garden with an orange section jammed in his mouth, along comes Scorsese. THIS was the penultimate gangster film of its decade and Scorsese traces the journey of an outside neophyte from his entry into the mob as well as his frantic escape from it clutches. Add to it the knockout performances, perfect adapted score, the hypnotic camera work and frenetic, cocaine-inspired pacing. This was a real dance with real wolves, so the fact that Scorsese was again denied at the Oscar race was an embarrassment. In case you’re interested, the real Henry Hill, on whom the lead character is based, continued to have problems not getting arrested and was eventually tossed out of the Witness Protection Program. His several careers as author, restaurateur, and artist didn’t particularly flourish, either, but if any human being had 9 lives, it would be Henry Hill.
Un Prophet – Jacques Audiard (2009)
There is no better microcosm to display the fertile ground that breeds gangsterism than a prison. The existing social structure is stark and extreme. The individuals in prison are generally the most alienated outsiders that life outside the walls has to offer. Plus they tend to gravitate to their own ethnic groups for protection as well as brotherhood. Malik is 19 and is of Algerian origin, now living in France. He has no outside support and has been tossed into a prison loaded with hardened – and warring – criminals for a six-year sentence, all for a relatively minor charge. Although he is Muslim, the leader of an opposing ethnic gang shows interest in him. What Audiard does with the rest of his film is to show how a relative innocent can learn, maneuver, play, ultimately rising in the criminal ranks, all simply because there is no other path for him to follow. The film is both harsh and magical, unlike any other prison (or gang) film out there. Tahar Rahim gives a ferocious, yet sympathetic performance (not an easy task) and both he and the film won several accolades from just about everywhere film is celebrated – except Oscar. One of the best films of the past two decades.
Boys N the Hood – John Singleton (1991)
With Boyz, Singleton made a splashy debut that managed to set some milestones in American cinema. Not only was he the first African American director nominated for an Oscar (two, actually – one for writing and one for directing), he did it at the age of 23 which also made him the youngest director to be nominated. The film considers the challenges of growing up in a gang-infested environment and how easily one can slip into step with a lifestyle that is outside the law and usually ends prematurely. He also examines issues like peer pressure, parental concern, and, most of all, the harsh reality responsible for perpetuating an environment where gangsterism is one of a very limited number of options for a black kid like Tre. The directing is fresh, as is the writing, and the film is wrapped in one of the finest soundtracks of the 90s. Laurence Fishburne was a well-established actor when he portrayed Tre’s father, but his performance likely cemented his landing the role of Ike Turner a couple of years later. Both Cuba Gooding Jr and Ice Cube owe their successful acting careers to Singleton and Boyz, Without Boyz, I doubt that Gooding would have gone on to say a few years later, “show me the money,” and then walk away from the Dorothy Chandler pavilion with a gold statue under his arm after bringing down the house with his acceptance speech. Like Singleton’s film purports, success – even survival – is all based on having the chance and choosing the right path.
Every society, from England to Brazil, Taiwan to South Africa, has its own gang cultures and, consequently, a healthy archive of gang-related films. I wish I could have included more here. What are some of your favorites??