Category Archives: Race

Reliving the Jazz-Age and Ethnic Passing: Boardwalk Empire and Martin Scorsese (01 February 2011)

Boardwalk Empire is the title of a new, American television series, screen-written and produced by Terence Winter who is the producer of The Sopranos, that premiered on the new Sky Atlantic channel tonight. What captured my attention most about this television series from its trailer is the fact that it is considered to be the most expensive pilot episode of television history, which is probably due to Martin Scorsese directing the first episode.

I am a big fan of Scorsese’s movies and we also discussed some of his work in class. We examined his depiction of Irish-American ethnicity in his latest gangster film The Departed(2007). I also chose to write an essay on Scorsese’s handling of the themes of identity and ethnicity in the post-9/11 context of The Departed. My in-depth research into the topic of Irish-American identity and ethnicity, from reading the critics like Diane Negra who discusses the formation and application of Irish-American identity and ethnicity pre-and post-9/11, provided me valuable knowledge that is applicable to other texts dealing with Irish-Americans such as Boardwalk Empire.

The Boardwalk Empire series is set in the Prohibition era, which is a period of American history we discussed in class last term. We examined the depiction of immigrants and the immigrant experience in Jacob Riiss’s and Lewis Hine’s photography, and the representation of Irish-American ethnicity in James Cagney’s films The Public Enemy(1931). We also discussed his performance in Angels With Dirty Faces(1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandie(1942). In a similar vein, Boardwalk Empire is also relevant to my research of American society and the immigrant experience because it deals with Irish-Americans immigrants in Atlantic City.

Boardwalk Empire is an adaption of a chapter from Nelson Johnson’s novel Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City. Enuch “Nucky” Thompson, who is based on the historical criminal kingpin, Enoch L. Johnson, is performed by Steve Buscmi who also acted in The Sopranos. This allegorical descendant of Tony Soprano is and will not be the only echo from the series. Unlike The Sopranos, however, the leading villain is not Italian-American, but instead is an Irish-American gangster who is performed by an Italian-American actor with part-Irish ancestry.

Ethnic passing appears to be a recent trend in Scorsese’s filmography as we also see in The Departed, Billy Costigan, an Irish-American state trooper who goes undercover to infiltrate Frank Costello’s mob, performed by the Italian-American actor, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Another of Scorsese’s films that will contain ethnic passing is The Irishman, which has been confirmed as a future release. The Irishman is an adaptation of Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses. Robert De Niro, an Italian-American actor, will play the leading role of the mob assassin, Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran who is believed to have committed 25 or more mob murders, and allegedly killed Jimmy Hoffa, an American labour union leader and author. Joe Pesci and Al Pacino will also star along side De Niro. Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci previously worked together on a trio of gangster movies, Raging Bull(1980), Goodfellas(1990), and Casino(1995), while De Niro and Pacino only shared screen time in Heat(1995) and Righteous Kill(2008).

With that in mind, race, ethnicity and immigration are central concerns of Boardwalk Empire. As a democratic, Nucky Thompson’s power stems from his reliance on the black peoples’ vote. The writers emphasize this in order to convey that Nucky is not a racist, unlike other whites, which may be read as an attempt to deconstruction the history of negative race relations between the Irish-American and African-American communities.


Immigration and ethnicity are conveyed through the multi-ethnic geography of the world of Boardwalk Empire. Atlantic city is an Irish ethnic enclave, New York City is a Jewish ethnic enclave, and Chicago is an Italian ethnic enclave, but things are not as simple as this as the plot reveals.

Margaret Schroeder is an Irish-American immigrant who is undoubtedly one of the best characters on the show. Her rags-to-riches story of rising from nothing is clearly meant to portray an American Dream with a nightmarish streak.

Although the social history of Boardwalk Empire may not be 100% accurate, the true beauty of it is its authentic re-envisioning and perfect replication of a long-gone, pivotal era of American history that is brought back to life with remarkable cinematography. From what I have seen so far, The Sopranos has been reborn. It may be a different era but the rules are the same.

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Progressive Era (1890-1920) 05 October 2010

“The longer we captivate someone and make them think about what they are seeing, the better chance we have of them understanding what it is we’re trying to say with the photography.” (Nighswander qtd. in Horton 223)

Figure 1: Kidnapping scene. The Black Hand (1906). 2011.

Early American films, photography and immigration from the Progressive era were the topics of discussion in today’s class. One of the silent films from what is known as the “primitive era” or “early cinema period” we examined is The Black Hand (1906). It is classed as the first gangster film and this is apparent from its titular connotations. The signing of the appellation “Black Hand” to a letter is associated with the Italian mafia’s means of communicating the significance of a threat, which will only conclude with death if requests are not fulfilled. The threat anxiety gangsters inflicted on society is symptomatic of a national xenophobia concerning the then-present mistrust of foreigners in the US. America’s treatment of white European immigrants in comparison to the treatment of blacks and Native Americans is a topic I am interested in because it exposes the racial inequalities of America’s race relations.

The film also differentiates between America’s perception of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrant by juxtaposing the non-assimilated, gang affiliated criminal with the hard-working, partially assimilated, butcher.

The moral bifurcation of immigrants is also evident from Jacob Riis’s photography. Riis was one of the first photojournalists of America who later became known as “the great Emancipator of the slums” (qtd. in Quirke 561). Photography was the most important propagandist tool of the Progressive era because it could be utilised to reinforce social ideologies.

Figure 2: Jacob Riis’s “Bandits’ Roost” (1888). Web. 2011

The title of this photograph is “Bandit’s Roost” (1888) (see figure 2) which is the name of an alleyway in Manhattan’s Five Points neighbourhood, which is also the setting of the Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York (2002).
The criminality of the immigrants is conveyed through their body language, the light and dark contrasts of the background and the weaponry in the foreground of the photograph. Riis is particularly interested in the concept of illumination, which conveys connotations of revelation and religion. His photography is illuminating their situation, while the photographic usage of light and its absence suggests the divine intervention he intends from social reformation.

There is also a sense of community apparent from the tight knit, proximity of the immigrants’ residency, which is sustained by the loyalty-at-all-costs ethos cementing their social unity. Martin Scorsese’s films emphasize the importance of group morality and intergroup loyalty in his microcosmic depiction of the mafia ethos.

Consequently, early American film and photography capture the social issues concerning immigrants, occupying America’s social consciousness.

Works Cited

Horton, Brian. Associated Press Guide to Photojournalism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001. Print.

Quirke, Carol. “Picturing the Poor: Jacob Riis Reform Photography.” Reviews in American History 36.4 (2008): 557-565. Project Muse. Web. 05 Oct. 2010.

 


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