Researching Riis’s photography inspired me to re-watch Gangs of New York (2002) again because of Scorsese’s depiction of urban criminality enacted and experienced by immigrants in 19th Century, Lower Manhattan. Paula J. Massood views Scorsese’s films through the lens of ethnic geography, which is the study of ecological and spatial aspects of ethnicity. Massood observes in her essay, “From Mean Streets to Gangs of New York”, that most of Scorsese’s films have a relationship with the city and that these films expose a connection between urban space and ethnicity (77-78). Ethnic geography is evident in Gangs of New York from the ethnic neighbourhood in Five Points, Lower Manhattan where Irish immigrants have created an ethnic residential quarters in order to maintain group cohesiveness.
The protagonist Amsterdam evokes New York City in his voiceover narration as “a city full of tribes and war chiefs” (Gangs of New York). Despite the anarchic inferno of rioting, public hangings, knife throwing exhibitions and bare-knuckle boxing, Amsterdam considers his milieu to be “a cauldron in which a great city might be forged” (Gangs of New York). After the draft riots, the pivotal event in the film, Amsterdam concludes that “our great city was born in blood and tribulation” which emphasizes the contribution of working class immigrants to modern society’s catastrophic birth but also their exploitation in the process. In a review for New York Times, Scott accurately sums up Scorsese’s Old New York as “a gaudy multi-ethnic carnival of misrule, music and impromptu theatre, a Breughel painting come to life” (n. pag.). Scorsese’s film captures the brutality involved in the forging and evolution of this country into a cultural and ethnic melting pot or what Travis Bickle from Taxis Driver (1976) calls a boiling cauldron. Akin to the bloody aftermath of the discovery of America, the birth of the American nation is baptised by the blood of fighting immigrants.
Massood, Paula J. “From Mean Streets to Gangs of New York: Ethnicity and Urban Space in the films of Martin
Scorsese.” City that Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination. Ed. Murray Pomerance. New York: Rutgers, 2007. Print.
Scott, A. O. “Gangs of New York Film Review: To Feel A City Seethe.” New York Times. 20 Dec. 2002. Web. 06 Oct. 2010.