How Gangster Is It to Be Gangster?

By Liela Hafshejani

It might be hypocritical of me to write an article that trashes mob culture when one of my favorite movies is The Godfather. Despite its well-deserved praise, the glorification of mobster culture that came in its wake can’t be overlooked. Scorcese’s film, and others like it, perpetuated harmful perceptions of mob life that have forever tainted the image of foreign immigrants from Italy. 

Based on the book written by Mario Puzo in 1969, The Godfather revolves around the Corleone family and their Mafia family based in New York. They are one of the five mafia families of New York, and the story follows their rivalries following World War II.   It’s your standard mafia movie with a big Italian family with a lot of personalities that are tightly knit and love each other. People get shot, people are killed, some have to flee the country for murdering a cop. There’s betrayal, cheating, abuse, love, angst–the whole works. It’s a beautifully written story and the book is equally as good. I love the movie and have seen it countless times, but there’s a problem. The issue is the image it portrayed. 

In the late 19th-century when a mass of immigrants came over, it was near the end of the attempt of reconstruction after the Civil War. The KKK formed, and they went around the country and expressed their hatred for African Americans; however, when the immigrants from Italy, England, Ireland, Scotland, China, and Japan came to the U.S., the KKK was angered that all the hatred they built to end reconstruction was ‘ruined’ by the coming in of immigrants. It got to the point where other white people– who weren’t even a part of the KKK or other hate groups– began to treat the immigrants negatively. They created the same idea with the immigrants as they did with freed African Americans– negative stereotypes. A good comparison would be something like Jim Crow laws and how they were based around stereotypes. For example, the idea that all Italians were criminals (see the story about Sacco and Vanzetti for a real-life example). The more they pressed the stereotype, the more they lived up to it. Hence, The Godfather. 

After the massive success of the release of The Godfather, a wave of mafia and gangster movies were made. Movies like Scarface, GoodFellas, and The Untouchables, all became extremely popular. All of these movies were loosely based on real-life events and people. Both Scarface and The Untouchables were based on Al Capone while GoodFellas is based on Henry Hill– an associate of the Lucchese crime family before he became an FBI informant. 

An example of the effects of the glamorization of the mafia and gangster lifestyle is the entire plot of the movie GoodFellas

The movie follows Henry Hill– played by Ray Liotta– and his life as a young, newly made gangster with the mob. This is also a wonderful movie, but it encourages a lot of negative behavior. The opening line by itself speaks volumes about how people took in the movie. 

It’s very normal for someone to want to be like a movie character they like. It happens to all of us. It’s just that these specific characters aren’t exactly the best role models. Everyone started wearing Italian suits, robbing banks (or just acting like they were), some cities’ crime rates went up, the whole nine yards.  

Another issue that came from these movies was the way the men are portrayed. The men in these movies were severely toxic. They would cheat on their wives, have multiple mistresses, cat call any woman they saw, would hit the women in their lives, be racists, be homophobic in some cases, and would have short tempers and would get riled up by every little inconvenience. This ties back to what I said about people wanting to be like movie characters they like. I don’t think I need to explain how some people acted after seeing this kind of behavior in those movies.

I would like to make this clear though. I’m not anti mafia movies; I’m anti ‘thinking it’s ok to act like a gangster because you saw Al Pacino shoot a guy in a restaurant and flee the country.’ I’d also like to clear up that Al Pacino is one of my favorite actors, and I’m not saying it’s his fault. My goal with the article is to show that it is indeed, not very gangster to act like a gangster. Are the movies based on real life? Yes. But, they’re very loosely based on what happened. A movie is still just that– a movie; a work of fiction made to attract audiences and to make money. Honestly, just enjoy the movie for what it is. They’re all amazing movies that can be very enjoyable, but only if you don’t blow it out of proportion. 

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

GoodFellas

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