Singing Soprano, While Dissin’ the Bass: America’s White Thug Love & Ethnically Acceptable Violence
by Dr. Edward Rhymes
America's love affair with the gangster-killer-thug Soprano family proves beyond doubt that white violence is exalted in the culture, while Black violence is Public Enemy Number One. Tony Soprano needs a high-priced psychiatrist, but a million Black men and women deserve a living death in prison. Gangster-actors Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart are revered as cultural icons, while Seventies so-called "Black-sploitation" films and contemporary rap recordings are condemned as symptoms of African American social pathology. Violence, apparently, is an exclusive White Right.
"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."
As the popular HBO series The Sopranos came to a close; and the show's stars made the rounds of talk & late-night shows, I found 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.
"America has a propensity to embrace the glorification of violence and criminal activity in entertainment when those pulling the triggers and those doing the killing are white."
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.
"Jesse James was America's own Robin Hood, though he robbed from the poor as well as the rich."
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 PBS 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 make irony of 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.
"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."
Many types of criminal, from the urban white ethnic gangster to the poor white 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.:
(1) Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar (1930) starred Edward G. Robinson as a gritty, coarse and ruthless, petty Chicago killer named Caesar Enrico (or "Rico") Bandello (a flimsy disguise for a characterization of Al Capone), who experienced a rise to prominence and then a rapid downfall; Robinson was the first great gangster star
(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).
"The disturbing portrayal of irresponsible and anti-social behavior by the gangsters almost encouraged its attractiveness."
The ultra-violent, landmark film in the depiction of Italian-American immigrant gangsters included twenty-eight deaths, and the first use of a machine gun by a gangster. It was brought to the attention of the Hays Code for its unsympathetic portrayal of criminals, and there was an ensuing struggle over its release and content. The disturbing portrayal of irresponsible and anti-social behavior by the gangsters almost encouraged its attractiveness. (In tribute over fifty years later, Brian de Palma remade the film with Al Pacino in the title role of Scarface (1983)).
Eventually, two of the most successful gangland "Mafia" films ever made appeared in the 1970s with Francis Ford Coppola's direction of Mario Puzo's best-selling novel, The Godfather (1972), and The Godfather, Part II (1974). Both were epic sagas of a violent, treacherous, and tightly-knit crime family superstructure from Sicily that had settled in New York and had become as powerful as government and big business. Returning war veteran/son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) had to loyally follow in his father's criminal path, without questioning its legitimacy.
Both contained a number of brutal death scenes, including Sonny Corleone's (James Caan) flurry-of-bullets death at a toll booth in the first. Part II was the first sequel ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The third and final (this episode received far less critical acclaim than the previous two) installment in the trilogy was The Godfather, Part III (1990).
Director Martin Scorsese also explored the theme of family ties being torn apart by unpredictable violence. His intense films regularly starred actor Robert De Niro. Scorsese's "crime trilogy" included two mob pictures in the 1990s. The first film in the trilogy was Mean Streets (1973) - the one that established Scorsese's reputation. It was about the lives of aspiring, small-time crooks in the Little Italy section of New York.
"Even though these glorified thugs flouted the law at every turn and committed despicable acts of violence, they were still cast as charismatic and strangely sympathetic figures."
The other two films were GoodFellas (1990) - adapted from Wiseguy, which followed thirty years in the lethally-violent criminal careers of rising mobsters and was based on the life of actual ex-mobster Henry Hill. And Scorsese's Casino (1995) examined a Mafia criminal dynasty making its presence known in a brutal takeover of 1960s-70s Las Vegas.
Although many of the gangsters in these films met with death and destruction, this did not prevent America's love affair with them - the glorification of the white ethnic gangster in cinema became an American guilty pleasure. Indeed, the vast majority of these films are considered classic. Even though these glorified thugs flouted the law at every turn and committed despicable acts of violence, they were still cast as charismatic and strangely sympathetic figures. The audience and the American public somehow found itself subconsciously; as well as consciously, pulling for them.
Fade To Black
The late 60's and early 70's brought the Black variation on some of the themes contained in the earlier gangster films. These gangster melodramas, with elements of social protest, were dominated by a single (male or female) charismatic personality. The genre contained stories of the pimp or pusher at a crisis point, caught between the needs of his people (Black Nationalism) and the pressure to sellout from "The Man." Standout examples are Superfly, played by Ron O'Neal; and The Mack. Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Sweet Sweetback (1971) have been credited with kicking off the genre - Sweet Sweetback's Badaaass Song was fierce and uncompromising and deemed inaccessible to whites. Peebles went ahead and produced it anyway, financing it largely himself. Unable to show the film in many cinemas, he persuaded a few black cinemas in Detroit, San Francisco and New York to show it.
The response was incredible. Black people in droves went to see what was, essentially, the tale of a promiscuous black antihero as he made his way towards Mexico to evade the white police. Peebles wrote his own score and enlisted the assistance of the newly-formed group called Earth, Wind and Fire who happened to be friends with one of his production crew. Black Caesar (1973), starring Fred Williamson, was modeled on 1931's Little Caesar and needed only slight color tweaking to attract a new (and predominantly Black) audience. Blaxploitation films have been criticized for glorifying criminal behavior and perpetuating negative stereotypes, but the genre seldom gets credit for addressing issues and concerns relevant to the overlooked urban/inner-city demographic.
"Black-sploitation films received castigation and criticism that the ‘classic' films which portrayed whites as the gangsters, criminals and thugs rarely received."
In the 1990s several Black directors explored issues of urban justice through stories of children growing up in urban America. Films such as Boyz N the Hood brought vivid images of disenfranchised and violent neighborhoods and the obstacles involved in growing up in these neighborhoods. These films questioned whether the criminal justice system works in neighborhoods isolated from both the creation and the protections of the legal system, and where the rules of the criminal justice system sometimes collide with the rules of the neighborhood justice system. In this same time period, Hollywood released many more films directed by Blacks, films such as Ernest Dickerson's Juice (starring Tupac Shakur and Omar Epps), Allen and Albert Hughes Menace II Society, and Spike Lee's Clockers.
Though some of these flicks have enjoyed cult status, they received castigation and criticism that the "classic" films which portrayed whites as the gangsters, criminals and thugs rarely received - John Singleton's Boyz-N-The Hood stands out (and mostly alone) in receiving critical acclaim while portraying inner-city violence.
The Scarface Generation
Perhaps no film has made more of an impression on what would later become gangsta rap than the 1983 film Scarface - the name Scarface, and its many variations, can be found in scores of songs and albums (as well in artist and group names). It stars Al Pacino as Tony Montana, a Cuban-immigrant who shoots and kills his way to the "top" to become the head of a powerful and brutal drug empire. It also, in my opinion, far-and-away one of the most explosive and bloody films in the history of the gangster-film genre. Four short years later, LA-based rapper Ice T emerged with his album Rhyme Pays (1987) which depicted hardcore street-life. In 1988 N.W.A.'s (Niggaz With Attitude) underground album Straight Outta Compton firmly established gangsta rap within the American music scene. Its keynote track F*** Tha Police was considered so shocking that radio stations and MTV refused to play it. Nonetheless, the album went platinum.
"The reliance on crime in the lyrics of gangsta rap fuels much of the controversy surrounding the musical style."
N.W.A. and gangsta rap's popularity was compounded with the release of their second album EFIL4ZAGGIN in 1991, which debuted at number two in the Billboard chart with neither a single nor a video and became the first rap album to reach number one. Snoop Doggy Dogg then became the first rapper to go straight to number one with his album Doggystyle (1993). The reliance on crime in the lyrics of gangsta rap fuels much of the controversy surrounding the musical style. And while it has been criticized for glorifying the negativity of the streets, gangsta rap's defenders claim that the rappers are simply reporting what really goes on in their neighborhoods. In other words they are telling a story through their specific cultural and experiential lens - this is not an endorsement of gangsta rap, but rather an attempt to properly contextualize the genre.
Granted, the high profile scandals and tragedies that have accompanied some of the biggest names in rap and gangsta rap adds fuel to the charges of it being too violent--- such as the trials of Sean "P Diddy" Combs and Snoop Dogg and the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie Smalls). Nevertheless, I remember gangsta rap in its infancy (before any of the aforementioned incidents took place) and condemnations of its ultra-violent lyrics and persona were being voiced even then. Hypocritically, the bloody Genovese and Colombo crime family wars were taking place in New York in the early 70's (when the first two Godfather movies were released) and a correlation between that reality and The Godfather was not made. Neither was any strong assertion made concerning Brian DePalma's Scarface glorifying and promoting the actual cocaine-financed mafia that was on the rise in the 80's.
In American popular culture and in the consciousness of the American public, real and media white violence and crime is deracialized. For example, when the tragedy occurred at Virginia Tech there was a flurry of questions about how it would impact people's views of Korean Americans. Was that question asked in regard to whites when Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City? What about Columbine? Or Ronald Gene Simmons? For every Cho there are 10-15 Bundys, Gacys, Specks and Dahmers, and yet there is no condemnation of white culture or a feared backlash against whites because of the actions of a notorious few. The same cannot be said of Black folk and other people of color. Our problems and concerns are usually treated as some sort of racialized pathology, whereas white indiscretions and transgressions are viewed as the innocuous and colorless "societal" or "social" ill - detached and divorced from whiteness. On a related note, Salon.com's headline story, about the Sopranos, for Saturday June 9, 2007 was titled: "Our Favorite Murderer."
"For every Cho there are 10-15 Bundys, Gacys, Specks and Dahmers, and yet there is no condemnation of white culture."
Don't get me wrong, I'm not a prude. Although, as a principle, I am against a great deal (if not most) of the violent messages that is being transmitted through some films and music, that does not prevent me from gleaning powerful ideas, concepts and perspectives from those same films and forms of music (The Godfather, N.W.A, Scarface and [pre-Barbershop] Ice Cube included). The sexism and carnage, that I am opposed to, that is displayed in The Godfather, does not blind me to depth of the characters and the complexity of the plot. Likewise, the misogyny and violence, that I abhor, that is present in the earlier songs of gangsta rap (I cannot embrace anything or anyone in the current field), does not negate the fact that those artists did bring to the forefront many issues and concerns of the Black community - such as racial profiling, poverty, gang life and police brutality.
So what is the point that I am trying to make here? I suppose that it is this: that if the problem or concern is violence in entertainment, then make the condemnation of it across the racial and ethnic board - no matter how sympathetic, charismatic or heroic they make the Michael and Vito Corleones, the Tony Montanas or the Tony Sopranos. Because, if the eradication of violence in entertainment begins and ends with Black faces and voices, then it is a strategy that is bound to fail. Or, if one believes that proper perspective and context must be used in critiquing these popular mafia films and series, that's fine. However, don't fail to apply that same drive for context and perspective when judging the music and messages that flow from a Black outlook. And finally, don't divorce that critique from the long history of white ethnic violence in American cinema and popular culture that preceded and helped to influence that same outlook.
Educator and writer Dr. Edward Rhymes can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.orgThis