For more than thirty years, quoting characters from gangster pictures has become the norm in the United States. Even though crime films starring actors like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney (Little Caesar, Angels with Dirty Faces) were popular in the 1930s and 1940s, it wasnâ€™t until the early seventies that the gangster film was ingrained in American culture.
In 1972, Francis Ford Coppolaâ€™s The Godfather became the essential gangster movie and popularized the genre. The Godfather and its sequel showed the workings of the traditional underworld through the generational narrative of the fictional Corleone family. The Godfather demonstrates how people are always looking for the easy way to make money. Usually, while on that path, they discover that involving oneself in the business of racketeering, extortion, and drug dealing is anything but easy. Many new gangster pictures take ideas from the epic and attach them to present-day situations. Throughout the 1970s, crime dramas, most of which were set in New York, showed the darker side of urban life. Films released in this decade, with the notable exception of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, usually did not have gangsters in the title roles. This changed in 1983 with a film that shed light not only on a different city but also on a completely different culture.
In the 1980s, thousands of Cuban immigrants came to the shores of Florida and one of them was Tony Montana, known to the world as Scarface. Director Brian DePalma and screenwriter Oliver Stoneâ€™s updated remake of the 1932 film bearing the same name has become one of the most frequently referenced film in urban communities. The tale of Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee turned Miami kingpin, is seen by many as a model for the American Dream. However, Scarface isnâ€™t popular simply because of the compelling story. Rather, the mounds of cocaine, barrage of bullets, and overt use of explicit language keep the attention of the audience. Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino, is a character that is equally loved and hated by the audience. Everyone wants to be him but at the same time his callousness makes some people anticipate his demise in the filmâ€™s very graphic ending. Although critics slammed the film when it was released, Scarface has become a pop-culture giant as a fictionalization of actual events. Following Scarface, gangster flicks in the 1980s and 1990s entertained and educated their audiences by taking social issues and putting them on the big screen.
Along the same lines as Scarface, Mario van Peeblesâ€™ New Jack City highlighted the gravity and danger of the drug trade in the United States. Wesley Snipes starred as the ruthless crack dealer Neno Brown, a character many real-life hustlers aspired to become. Ice-T and Judd Nelson played the cops tracking down Brown, while a young Chris Rock portrayed Pookie, a crack addict-turned-spy for the police. To some, New Jack City is an inferior and over-exaggerated film, but to many it is marvelous big screen version of the crack epidemic that destroyed inner-city neighborhoods in the country. Also, New Jack City was one of the first films that focused on the African-American community in a way that avoided exploitation. From that point on, films like Menace II Society and Boys in the Hood provided an ostensibly balanced view of the dangers of city life. Unlike The Godfather, these movies did not glamorize the criminal lifestyle; like The Godfather, they all conveyed the themes of loyalty and betrayal prevalent in the gangster genre.
Furthermore, films like Menace and Boys brought South Central Los Angeles to the masses. Before these films, the only way most people could find about the gang culture of places like Compton and Watts was to read about in the papers or watch Cops. Neither of these sources provided the audience with a chance to see the humanity of gangsters. The films were able to show a contextualized version of the gritty reality and re-introduced the West Coast way of gangster life previously known only from the media. Meanwhile, Goodfellas, Casino, and Donnie Brasco all used the true stories of the Italian mafia to entertain their viewers. The stylishness of these films caused them to be embraced by inner-city youths regardless of race or ethnicity.
Style is a very important part of the gangster genre and no director has more of it than Hype Williams. Belly, released in 1998, was brushed off by many people who saw it as nothing more than an elaborate hip-hop video. Undoubtedly, the film has become a hip-hop classic but is actually much more than that. DMX and Nas star as best friends and thieves who get wrapped up in dealing heroin. The movie deals with leaving the gangster lifestyle as well as explaining the reasons many young black men try turn to such careers. Williams shows in the film that these men are not inherently self-destructive; in a more complex evaluation, we see how they cave into the pressures of living up to certain expectations of masculinity, most of which involve accruing large sums of money.
Everyone in this country wants to be the boss. The fascination with gangster films could take years to explain but a simple line from Jadakiss offers one explanation:
I watch gangster flicks and cheer for the bad guy,
I turn it off before it ends because the bad guy dies.
As long as the American Dream entails gaining lots of materialistic goods and living comfortably, the gangster and the gangster film will always exist.