As the popular HBO series The Sopranos winds down to a close; and the show’s stars make the rounds of talk & late-night shows, I find myself perplexed by America’s fascination with this program. Then again, why should I be? This is just another example of America’s propensity to embrace the glorification of violence and criminal activity in entertainment when those pulling the triggers and those doing the killing are white----A&E, which airs Sopranos reruns, just unveiled a commercial promoting the show and it shows a tractor exploding after the driver turns the key, a woman in an convenience store removing a bag of ice from a freezer and revealing the face of a murder victim and two kids beating a bicycle with baseball bats. This is accepted, ignored or celebrated. And so the decolorization of white violence in entertainment is achieved.
In that same vein, not too long ago AMC (American Movie Classics) was promoting a Godfather movie marathon and the promo consisted of scenes from the Godfather trilogy with gangsta rap playing in the background. Maybe they were just trying to reach a more contemporary audience, but whether knowingly or unknowingly AMC made a critical cultural & historical connection---a connection made by far too few people in this country. Many people, White and Black, continue to treat gangsta rap (and Black culture as well) as if it were not informed and shaped by the dominant culture’s values. Even a great deal of my white liberal & progressive brothers and sisters, seem to believe that Blacks in America hail from a different planet than they do---a planet that hasn’t been touched by this society’s long-standing history of glorifying violence and celebrating gangsterism. Indeed, most Whites believe that only Blacks have influenced Blacks and the diseases that are contracted from the defects in American culture have played no significant role in impairing or impacting the Black folk of this nation.
The Beginnings of White Thug Love
It can be argued that the beginnings of the deracialization of white violence in America began in the colonies when the Native Americans were portrayed as savages for acts that Whites were equally guilty of or acts of aggression that would have been deemed self defense had the “aggressors” not been Native-American. However, I want to focus on the American romanticization of the white outlaw and gangster in popular culture and film.
One of the most powerful examples of this “whitewashing” of history and criminal activity is found in the legend of Jesse James. The story of Jesse James remains one of America's most cherished myths... and one of its most erroneous. Jesse James, so the legend goes, was a Western outlaw, though, in fact, he never went west; was America's own Robin Hood, though he robbed from the poor as well as the rich, and kept it all for himself; and a gunfighter whose victims, in reality, were almost always unarmed. Less heroic than brutal, James was in fact a product, from first to last, of the American Civil War; a Confederate partisan of expansive ambition, unbending politics and surprising cunning, who gladly helped invent his own valiant legend. A member of a vicious band of Missouri guerrillas during the war, James sought redemption afterwards. But as the American Experience production revealed, year by year, he rode further from it, redeeming instead the great and glorious memory of the Old South. In a life steeped in prolific violence and bloodshed, he met what was perhaps the most fitting end; like so many of his own victims, James himself was an unarmed man, shot in the back. Nevertheless we see his image romanticized time and again through various films (the most popular being the 1939 version starring Tyrone Power) and historical retellings. He is sensitively portrayed as the reluctant outlaw; the Confederate idealist who was pushed into a life of crime---in this description we see the interconnectedness of the media, popular culture and public perception in creating and buttressing America’s time-honored folktales. This is repeated in the tales of Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and so on.
The American Gangster in Early American Cinema
Of course Al Capone, by the end of the 1920s, was the quintessential symbol of American gangsterism. Capone was accepted as a force in American life that government was powerless to control; his mercurial rise to power in Chicago's underworld made him not only feared and hugely wealthy but a substantial political influence and an example of how a gangster could make a business asset of his reputation---a popularity and perceived charisma that is imitated in every popular gangster film. Other figures such as Bonnie & Clyde, the Barkers and Pretty Boy Floyd have all been sanitized and romanticized as well; giving them Robin Hood-like status in popular culture.
The mythologized gangster can only be understood in relation to the wider society, whether he is cast as a villain whose actions confirm the need for law and order or as an outlaw hero admired for the toughness and energy with which he defies the system---the “outlaw hero” perspective has to also be understood in its racial context as well. Let’s face it, Blacks who were hounded by even harsher social realities than White ethnics, never were or would be cast as “outlaw heroes” in the early days of film. The gangster films of the early 1930s use the rebellious figure of the criminal and the hierarchical structure of the criminal organization both to challenge and to ironize capitalism and the business ethic. Having made a career of illegality, the gangster functions as the dark double of 'respectable' society, undermining its claims to legitimacy and parodying the American drive to succeed; underworld activities image the injustices and vicissitudes of American economic life, with its illusions of upward mobility, its preoccupation with image-building and its hierarchy of exploiters and exploited.
Many types of criminal, from the urban white ethnic gangster to the poor farm boy who drifted into crime, acquire, in the Depression, cross-class and cross ethnic appeal (the best discussion of which is in Jonathan Munby’s Public Enemies, Public Heroes). Both types become symbols of a rebellion impossible for ordinary law-abiding citizens to enact. The heroic rebel image was reinforced by the Hollywood versions of the myth, featuring performances of great dynamism and energy.
Movie gangsters such as Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were heroes of dynamic gesture, strutting, snarling and posturing, possessing a blatant, anarchic appeal. Standing outside the law in a period when Depression America was cynical about all sources of moral authority, they possessed an awe-inspiring grandeur, even in death. At the same time, however, they were a reflection of legitimate society. The criminal big-shot, viewed in the distorting mirror of the satirist, is a parody of the American dream of success, ironizing the business ethic by the illegality of his methods as well as by his ultimate defeat; the inevitable fall of the big-time gangster creates a sense of entrapment in an economically determined reality. He is the victim of a society in which everyone is corrupt.
Warner Bros. was considered the gangster studio par excellence, and the “Big Three” of Warners' gangster cycle, all actors who established and defined their careers in this genre, included: 1. Edward G. Robinson 2. James Cagney 3. Humphrey Bogart Others who were early gangster stars included Paul Muni and George Raft. Three classic gangster films (among the first of the talkies) marked the genre's popular acceptance and started the wave of gangster films in the 1930s in the sound era. The lead role in each film (a gangster/criminal or bootleg racketeer of the Prohibition Era) was glorified but each one ultimately met his demise in the final scenes of these films, due to censors' demands that they receive moral retribution for their crimes. The first two films in the cycle were released almost simultaneously by Warner Bros.:
(2) William Wellman's The Public Enemy (1931) starred James Cagney (in his first film) as a cocky, fast-talking, nasty, and brutal criminal/bootlegger named Tom Powers - most memorable in a vicious scene at the breakfast table where the scowling gangster assaults his moll girlfriend (Mae Clarke) by pressing a half grapefruit into her face. [Both are still in their pajamas, indicating that they spent the night together.] The finale included the door-to-door delivery of Cagney's mummy-wrapped corpse to his mother's house - the bandaged body falls through the front door.(3) Howard Hawks' raw Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932), a Howard Hughes' produced film from UA starred Paul Muni as a power-mad, vicious, immature and beastly hood in Prohibition-Era Chicago (the characterization of Tony Camonte was loosely based on the brutal, murderous racketeer Al Capone). Other stars were George Raft (as his coin-flipping emotion-less, right-hand killer).