Sight and Sounds

Issue section: 

After having just seen, and very much enjoyed, 'Gangs of New York', there are a number of things I'd like to add to Mike Davis's article ('Bloody Streets of New York', January SR).

This is a Hollywood movie on a grand scale, like a lurid Northern counterblast to 'Gone with the Wind'. This accounts for some of its faults--for all the violence, the gangs' world often seems attractively bohemian. The battle with which the film opens has a choreographed quality and a thumping soundtrack which almost turns it into a rock video.

In claiming that 'America was born in the streets', though, Scorsese seeks to go beyond entertainment and stakes out a claim about US history. In acknowledging that change is the result of struggle, and in focusing on the lives of ordinary people, his account is vastly better than schoolbook legends of the founding fathers. But the real problem is how Scorsese portrays race and ethnicity.

The striking final image of the film is of the graves of the rival Irish and nativist gang leaders continuing to overlook New York as it changes from the city of the Civil War to that of today. Monk McGinn explains that Irish immigrants fled centuries of racism at home, only to find the same thing waiting for them in America. It's easy to take from this the idea that ethnic rivalries and racism are part of an eternal heritage of conflict.

In fact the history of the American Civil War shows the opposite, as James M McPherson documents in his excellent book 'Battle Cry of Freedom'. The Northern rulers did not go to war in 1861 to free the slaves--in 1858 Lincoln had claimed that slavery would die out gradually, over at least the next 100 years. But they came to believe that emancipation was the only way they could win the war, and were forced to resort to increasingly radical measures which transformed their own society. As one New Yorker wrote in 1863, 'The change of opinion on this slavery a great and historic fact... Who could have predicted...this great and blessed revolution?... God pardon our blindness of three years ago.' In 1865, when the US constitution was amended to outlaw slavery, congressmen wept with joy. 'I have felt, ever since the vote,' wrote one, 'as if I were living in a new country.'

Scorsese's film does nothing to show a society in the throes of these transformations. Great entertainment, but flawed history and pessimistic politics.

Colin Wilson