I was a fan of Scorsese’s Gangs of New York when I first watched it fifteen years ago. I thought the acting was fantastic, and it was great to see the way the historical details of New York City in the mid-1800s came to life. The place looked so foreign from the New York I knew in 2002, and it was crazy to think it had been like that less than 150 years before.
Over the weekend, I decided to give it another watch to see how it held up. The acting was still spot on, the historical details were still engrossing, but what surprised me most this time through was how . . . similar New York looked to me now. How we seemed to have come full circle in just 15 years.
I don’t mean that New York has devolved into a place where violence rules the streets and gangs and politicians work hand in hand to control the way the city is run. Certainly no one’s getting bludgeoned to death in full daylight, and I haven’t read of anyone dying from being stabbed with a meat cleaver recently. But the city in the film is, broadly seen, very similar to the situation we have today in America.
For example, one of the big conflicts of the movie is the Natives (led by Bill the Butcher) vs. the Irish (led by Amsterdam Vallon). Bill is upset that so many Irish are flooding the country, and he’s dead set on keeping America for Americans. People who had been born there. Essentially he wants to Make America Great Again, which shows how tenuous the argument is. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. I believe many people look back to “the way things were” as a return to simpler times. How things were in your childhood. But from my experience, the only reason things seemed simpler to me when I was a child is because I didn’t fully understand the forces at work in the world. So it’s easy to think back on the 80s and reminisce about how great they were for me, because I wasn’t up to date on the Cold War or the AIDS epidemic, for example. Yes, they were concepts in my head, but they weren’t nearly as important to me as Transformers or the latest Nintendo game to be released.
Bill the Butcher wants things the way they were. He blames his current problems on an exterior force: the Irish. Now that enough time has passed, we can look back at his views and see just how close-minded they are, and yet those same views still hold sway today in the rhetoric of Trump. All that’s changed is the minorities that are blamed for the country’s woes.
Another huge issue in the movie is the disparity between the haves and the have nots. At the time, the North instituted a draft as it continued the Civil War. The catch? If you were drafted, you could pay $300 to get out of your obligation. So it became a draft of the poor, who couldn’t dream of affording that payment.
The movie essentially shows how all of this turmoil and anger boiled up and changed the city in one fell swoop. For the first 4/5ths of the film, we see a depiction of how life in New York worked, and we have expectations for what will be the climax of the movie. But then the city is hit with massive riots, and suddenly everything changes. That rang true to me. We can easily think that “the way things are” will never change, but often it changes in the matter of a day or less. Think about Pearl Harbor, or 9/11. The stock market crash in the 20s. Everything gets turned on its ear, and a new normal is established.
I have no idea what the future holds for America. But I was reminded in my rewatch of the movie how much things can change in a day, or 15 years. And as we see this wave of Nationalism sweeping across much of Europe and the US, I just hope we can get through it without the same conflicts we’ve experienced in the past.