The events of the first week of July 1863–from the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg to the New York City draft riots just days later–are among the most decisive days in U.S. history.
This explosive combination of slavery, war, racism, immigration and class should be the ideal subject for an epic film, and director Martin Scorsese should have the talent and experience to pull it off.
Unfortunately, Scorsese’s ultra-hyped Gangs of New York is a failure. Worse, it reinforces reactionary myths about the Civil War and even revives terrible racist stereotypes from the dustbin of Hollywood history.
Leaving aside the movie’s many historical distortions, the plot is an utterly predictable revenge tale in which a young Irish Catholic named Amsterdam (played by Titanic star Leonardo DiCaprio) is determined to bring down the murderer of his father, Priest Vallon (played by Liam Neeson).
For all its spectacle and technical prowess, the film is two-dimensional, with even important characters left undeveloped. Cameron Diaz, who plays Amsterdam’s love interest Jenny Everdeane, suddenly morphs from a hard-edged pickpocket and prostitute into a self-sacrificing defender of her fellow Irish Catholics.
The only character who makes this film watchable is the murderer–Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, gang leader of the Protestant “native Americans” who terrorizes Irish Catholic immigrants into submission as they pour into New York City’s old Five Points neighborhood.
Brilliantly played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Bill the Butcher captures the essence of the immigrant-bashing, racist, America-First politics that you can still hear today in a Trent Lott speech. Bill spits vicious insults at the Irish, Catholics and Blacks–anyone who doesn’t fit his ideal Protestant America. Yet like immigrant-bashers throughout U.S. history, Bill doesn’t let his hatred for Irish Catholics get in the way of making money off their backs.
Bill’s closest collaborator is the head of the Democratic Party machine, William “Boss” Tweed (played by Jim Broadbent in the only other standout performance). Tweed shares Bill the Butcher’s contempt for the Irish–only he sees political advantage in herding them off the boat and into the voting booth.
Unfortunately, these performances are overwhelmed by the sheer bloat of the 165-minute film. And the film’s historical insights are lost in what is at best confusion and at worst an apology for racism.
The film accurately portrays the mass attacks on government offices and mansions, as workers and the poor showed their outrage at the fact that the wealthy could purchase exemption from the draft. Yet the systematic lynching of Blacks during the riot is seen as a tragic sideshow–even though of the 110 people who died in the riot, the vast majority were African Americans.
Nor is there anything to suggest the fact that powerful New York Democratic businessmen supported the South and stirred up popular hatred of Blacks–but that 25,000 New Yorkers volunteered to fight for the North anyway.
This omissions might have been tolerable had Black characters been added to the film–former slaves or abolitionists, for example–who could have highlighted the contradictions of a race riot breaking out in a Northern city amid the Civil War. But African Americans in Gangs of New York have few lines and barely register as characters.
Little better is Scorsese’s stereotypical portrayal of the Chinese as silent, inscrutable Orientals. (There were only a handful of Chinese in 1860s New York, but Scorsese depicts a large community).
Overall, the film comes dangerously close to endorsing the argument made by some of its characters–that Irish Catholics, and whites generally, were being drafted to fight and die in a war in which they had no stake.
For a more accurate–as well as more entertaining and inspiring–film about the Civil War era, rent a copy of Glory, the powerful 1989 movie about Black troops in the Union Army. And for a portrayal of the bitter experiences of Irish immigrant workers in the late 1800s, get the 1970 film The Molly Maguires on video. Those interested in the history behind the events in Gangs of New York can pick up Iver Bernstein’s book, The New York City Draft Riots.
Of course, a popular Hollywood film can’t be expected to be historically accurate. The problem is that the movie focuses on historical detail while mostly ignoring the forces that shaped that history. And for its pretensions to be an epic, Gangs of New York just doesn’t make it as entertainment, either.