What Martin Scorsese can teach us about our immigration debate
It doesn’t get more Martin Scorsese than the street brawl scene that opens his 2002 film “Gangs of New York.” The battle is the climax of a bitter turf war between American nativists, led by the fearsome Bill the Butcher (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) and the Irish Catholic immigrant gang, led by “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson). At stake is control of the Five Points neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, today’s Little Italy.
After a preliminary exchange of religiously charged insults (“Roman popery”), the fight begins. We see ears ripped off, legs folded in and men tearing at each other’s faces with bloody fingers. “America was born in the streets,” the film’s posters declared. The opening sequence makes clear it was a bloody and violent birth.
Set in the mid-19th century, “Gangs of New York” reminds us in a visceral way that for as long as the United States has been a nation of immigrants, it has been infected by xenophobia. Fifteen years after the film’s release, the country is once again bitterly divided over race, class and immigration. Demographic changes today are as dramatic as the changes in the 19th century. The backlash has been just as fierce, in rhetoric if not in widespread street violence.
‘Gangs of New York’ reminds us that for as long as the United States has been a nation of immigrants, it has been infected by xenophobia.
Ironically, though perhaps not surprisingly, it is often the descendants of once-hated 19th- and 20th-century Catholic European immigrants who resent the immigrants of today. “My ancestors came here legally and followed the law,” goes the usual argument against illegal immigration today. Scorsese’s film is a $97-million way of responding, “You sure about that?”
Despite its national implications, the plot of “Gangs of New York” is intensely local, set in Martin Scorsese’s childhood neighborhood. Much of the action centers around the construction of a Catholic church that strongly resembles the real-life Old St. Patrick’s Church in Little Italy. Old St. Patrick’s was built in the early 19th century as the first seat of the Archdiocese of New York. By the end of the 19th century, as Irish-Americans gained wealth and influence, they built the larger St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. Lower Manhattan’s immigrant neighborhoods, once home to the Irish and the Germans, became home to Russian Jews and Italians. Old St. Patrick’s Church was inherited by these Italian immigrants, among them Scorsese’s Sicilian immigrant grandparents.
Growing up in that neighborhood, Scorsese became fascinated with the stories of the immigrants who came before him. “One story was about a group of mostly Irish immigrants having a showdown in front of the church with a gang of Protestant American-Born men, who felt they were the only true Americans,” recalled Scorsese in a book on the film’s making. “On this occasion the immigrants banded together, gathering up all the weapons they could find and defended their church against the attacking mob.”
This exact scene unfolds in the film, with the Irish-American protagonist Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) leading the face-off against Bill the Butcher’s nativist gang. This moment, like many others in the film, reveals what we could call the Martin Scorsese Thesis of Immigrant Assimilation: Becoming American requires not only enduring violence but being able to return it as well. It is a question of power, of how big a “gang” you can assemble.
Scorsese became fascinated with the stories of the immigrants who came before him.
Scorsese’s vision is a stark contrast to the mainstream narratives of immigrants that often highlight hard work, family values and civic participation. First, his protagonists are all orphaned. Bill the Butcher is orphaned by the British, who killed his father (presumably in the War of 1812). Amsterdam Vallon is orphaned by Bill the Butcher, who kills his father, Priest Vallon, in the opening scene. Cameron Diaz’s Irish-American character Jenny is similarly parentless, the closest thing to a father figure being Bill the Butcher, who took her in as a girl.
The only “family value” showcased in the film is revenge or, more charitably, the family loyalty that motivates revenge. But tribal loyalty is valued above all by both sides, who despite living in close quarters choose to draw a bright line between themselves and their enemies.
“Gangs of New York” leaves viewers rooting for the Irish immigrants. Yet in its thematic outlook, the film perhaps agrees more with Bill the Butcher’s philosophy when he says that “a native is a man who’s willing to give his life for his country.” This is the violence that Scorsese presents as the rite of passage necessary for immigrants to become Americans. In fact, many of his films, from “Mean Streets” to “Goodfellas” to “The Departed,” explore the ways in which immigrants and their descendants use violence to make their way in America.
Consider how Scorsese depicts voting, widely seen as the most important mark of U.S. citizenship. When an election takes place in “Gangs of New York,” heroes and villains alike happily use intimidation, fraud and violence to win votes. Tellingly, both sides rely on immigrant votes, with Bill the Butcher dragging Chinese immigrants to the polls. Meanwhile, Amsterdam and his gang mobilize the Irish, pushing a few reluctant citizens to vote at knifepoint. It is often said that politics is “war by other means.” In “Gangs of New York,” the means of war and politics are not easily distinguishable.
In ‘Gangs of New York,’ the means of war and politics are not easily distinguishable.
What is truly provocative is how Scorsese depicts the outcome of the violent and fraudulent election, with the immigrants coming out on top. An Irish-American candidate is elected, thanks to plenty of fraud and multitudes of Irish voters. This candidate (Brendan Gleeson) is a former street brawler, who in the opening scene was bashing in nativist heads with a club. His transformation into a well-dressed and democratically elected sheriff is a classic model of a soldier turned politician who assimilates into the American mainstream.
The movie could have ended here. Instead, within minutes of his election, he is brutally murdered by Bill the Butcher in broad daylight. Standing over the corpse, Bill tells all the assembled witnesses: “That, my friends, is the minority vote.”
The Ancient Laws of Combat
Clearly democracy, at least in those days, was not the path into American identity. But if not democracy, then what? Scorsese suggests that, for many immigrant groups, it has been ritualized violence. After Bill the Butcher negates the vote through outright murder, the film comes full circle. The Irish gang, reformed under Amsterdam, challenges Bill the Butcher to another pitched battle for control of the Five Points.
Despite their differences, Scorsese’s immigrants and natives have a similar moral code and a shared respect for the rules of fighting. They agree on a time and place to bash each other’s faces in. The two sides meet beforehand to determine which weapons will be acceptable. Bricks, bats, axes and knives will be permitted, but Amsterdam rules out pistols. “Good boy,” responds the Butcher. The characters cite the “ancient laws of combat” when establishing the rules for their engagement. There is indeed something ancient about “Gangs of New York.” It is as if even back then we were just repeating cycles of violence that had been going on for centuries.
One of the film’s most interesting motifs are images and statues of Native Americans. They are tucked away in the backs of rooms but often clearly in frame, waiting to be noticed. The imagery reminds us that Bill the Butcher’s “natives” were themselves once immigrants who used violence to claim their place in America. But the fact of this violent conquest does not prompt any self-reflection or remorse from Bill the Butcher; rather, it is central to his claim that the later-arriving Irish do not belong. In the sole eye of Bill the Butcher (he cut the other one out himself), violence is how one stakes a claim as an American. Bill justifies his xenophobia by pointing out that his ancestors, specifically his deceased father, fought for America at its founding.
In ‘Gangs of New York,’ violence is how one stakes a claim as an American.
In one memorable scene, Bill declares that the country is not for those who have “had no part in the fighting for it.” Even as he speaks, we see Irish immigrants, fresh off the boat, line up behind him to enlist in the Union Army. Service with the Union side in the Civil War is a way in which Irish immigrants could lay claim to their American identity—again, through violence. They fight for the nation, so they belong in the nation.
Bill recognizes this logic. Despite having killed Priest Vallon, Bill calls him “the last honorable man.” He tells Amsterdam, “Your father tried to carve out a corner of this country for his tribe.” Amsterdam comes to recognize that this violent struggle to “carve out a corner” is his generational legacy. By embracing this struggle he becomes truly American.
The Continuing Drama of Immigrant America
Scorsese’s decision to tell the story of his old neighborhood is understandable. It is intriguing, though, that he chose to tell it through the experiences of the Irish. After all Italian-Americans also experienced discrimination and violence—much of it at the hands of Irish-Americans, who jealously guarded their political power or influence against later immigrants. Perhaps someday Scorsese will jump forward in time to the stories of today’s large, often hated, Catholic immigrant group: Mexicans. (I have a pitch. Call me!)
Contrasting the immigration experiences of Mexicans with those of the Irish and Italians lays bare the arbitrariness and even the racism of U.S. immigration policy. When the Irish came to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, all an immigrant had to do to come “legally” was to arrive on its shores. Strong immigration restrictions were then put in place specifically to prevent Italians and Eastern European Jews from coming to the United States. Both Catholicism and Judaism were seen as threatening minority religions, and Italians and Jews were both thought to import terrorism in the name of anti-American ideologies, specifically anarchism and communism. In 1924 legal Italian immigration was essentially ended by congressional legislation, but Italians kept coming, many as undocumented immigrants.
Perhaps someday Scorsese will jump tell the stories of today’s large, misunderstood, Catholic immigrant group: Mexicans.
Yet Italian-Americans eventually succeeded in the United States, building the Little Italy that Scorsese grew up in and others like it across the country. They achieved political power, too. In New York, Fiorello La Guardia broke the political stranglehold of the Irish-dominated Tammany Hall machine to become the city’s first Italian-American mayor. As the political power of Italian-Americans increased, undocumented Italian immigrants were offered citizenship. Throughout the 1940s there was, in effect, an amnesty program for undocumented Italian and other European immigrants.
During the same period that Italian immigrants were being given amnesty, Mexicans encountered fierce xenophobia. The 1930s saw the policy of Mexican Repatriation. The 1950s saw “Operation Wetback.” Both were periods of mass deportation that saw U.S. citizens of Mexican origin rounded up and deported. And while many Mexican immigrants received amnesty in the 1980s under President Reagan, Congress’ failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform in recent decades has left undocumented immigrants with little to no chance of being granted a path to citizenship.
The history of our immigration laws reveals the same realities as Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”: Who gets to be treated and accepted as an American is not a matter of right or wrong. It is not even a matter of the law. As Americans of Mexican, Japanese and African origin have discovered throughout history, even citizenship is often no guarantee of equal treatment. For Scorsese, American identity is first and foremost a question of power. “Gangs of New York” offers a grim warning: Immigrants who hope to be Americans must take power in order to do so.
For Scorsese, American identity is first and foremost a question of power.
One of Scorsese’s most interesting insights into U.S. history concerns how immigrants and their descendants end up becoming anti-immigrant themselves. In the years after the battle that opens “Gangs of New York,” many of the Irish lieutenants of Priest Vallon join the nativist gang of Bill the Butcher, becoming neighborhood cops and enforcers against other Irish immigrants. I am reminded of Steve Bannon and John Kelly, the Catholic descendants of Irish immigrants who have nevertheless formulated or implemented the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies. This is one of the deeper tragedies of our immigration debate today. The age-old conflict of the native versus the immigrant is no longer predominantly Protestant against Catholic. It is now Catholic against Catholic.
We are still grappling with the central question the film raises: What does it take to become American? When people practice new cultures or religions or introduce different languages or foods into our towns and lives, we worry that our American identity is being diminished. Yet every wave of immigration has contributed something to the country we share. The Christian command is clearly to welcome the stranger and the refugee, to love others as ourselves. “Gangs of New York” reminds us that throughout our history we have often failed to do so.
Before the final battle, Amsterdam promises Jenny that “this will all be over tomorrow.” She replies, “No it won’t.” Fifteen years after “Gangs of New York” and 150 years after the time the film depicts, our debates over immigration and American identity are no closer to being over than when Irish Catholics were forced to defend Old St. Patrick’s in Lower Manhattan.