I was once impressed by the mafia canon. Though raised in the typical Italian-Irish-Catholic-American fashion and in no way religious, my father most often refers to himself as “Jewish by association.” He is what you might endearingly refer to as a “philo-Semite.” So when my 13th birthday rolled around, he felt a manhood initiation ritual was in order: a faux-mitzvah. This thoroughly unorthodox affair included eating Moroccan food and watching belly dancers, roaming the San Gennaro festival, a visit to ground zero, and a recitation of the Hebrew blessing of the wine in front of a group of drunk and decidedly baffled Israelis.
The culmination of this culturally confusing evening was the viewing of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic, The Godfather. My father told me with a solemn gravity that seems sarcastic in retrospect that this movie would teach me “everything I needed to know about being a man.” To be fair, he was quick to point out how evil these characters were, but even a man as educated and forward thinking as my father could not help but get a rush of excitement from the brutal decisiveness and bravado of these fictional mafiosos. I was immediately entranced by the story and my stupid, newly teenage mind felt a strong affinity with these characters because I, too, had a surname that ended in a vowel. Intense family loyalty, intimidating others into giving you what you want, and the unswerving sureness of action were things that seemed so masculine and important, and these men represented the pinnacles of those ideals.
With the exception of jazz music, the gangster movie may be America’s (and probably New York’s) most significant artistic contribution of the 20th century. Almost everybody loves them. In fact, I began thinking about this while reading an article about the gentle Jon Stewart’s fascination with Goodfellas. Ask any guy over the age of 30 what their favorite movies are and undoubtedly the list will include at least one title that celebrates organized crime. IMDb rates The Godfather as the best movie of all time (currently tied with The Shawshank Redemption), with its sequel trailing closely behind. And AMC places the entirety of the Godfather film series at the pinnacle of its list of the 100 greatest movies. We seem to memorize and recite the pseudo-profundities of the scripts as if they were scripture (I’ve heard “Leave the gun, take the cannolis” more than I’ve heard John 3:16). We want to root for the bad guy and tell ourselves that he’s just doing what he has to do to “make it.” But let’s be honest with ourselves. These characters we love and celebrate are psychopathic murderers who commit their crimes for the basest of all motivations. Besides, they aren’t even that interesting. It takes just a moment to figure out their driving motivation: a lust for riches and power.
In the gangster movie, characters and settings change, yet the plot remains relatively static: An immigrant, first-generation American, or otherwise disenfranchised fellow, decides that the system is rigged and works around it, or better yet, right through it. It’s thrilling to watch these criminals take and do what they want as they rack up the body count and make law enforcement and their enemies look foolish. It’s like the unauthorized version of the American dream. Instead of working hard and hoping each generation does a little better than the previous one, steps are skipped through sheer brutality and cunning. It’s fun the first few times but, in my humble opinion, the story has gotten stale and become irrelevant.
I’m not oblivious enough to think that a movie about a guy who always follows the rules would be interesting. But if we want examples of people who broke the rules, even violently, to fight the prevailing system of the day, American history provides far better examples of rebels, radicals, and revolutionaries with far more complex and thrilling stories. The labor unionists and socialists of the turn of the last century fought organized and bloody battles with industrialists and even the National Guard. These men and women did so not in order to become violent oppressors themselves, but for the good of their fellow workers. The stories of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass show that even the most cumbersome of legal and political obstacles can be overcome by sheer cleverness and will. If you prefer the anti-hero, there’s always people like Nat Turner or Big Bill Haywood.
The point is, our favored stories should be about more than the vile scramble for loot. People fight, kill, and risk their own lives for far higher ideals and more compelling reasons. Let’s replace “Fuck you, pay me” with “No justice, no peace.”