The history of the representation of Irish-Americans in American cinema demonstrates a trajectory curve that mirrors their gradual assimilation (which American cinema partly contributed to) into American society. Contemporary depictions of Irish-Americans have come a long way from the stereotypical images of aggressive, alcoholic, working-class ‘Micks’, ‘Paddys’ or ‘Boy-Os’ of early American cinema, which were short-lived because of the influx of a new wave of immigrants into America who were deemed to be less ‘white’ than the Irish. As a result, the Irish were repositioned further up on the ‘white’ spectrum and were utilized as an exemplification of assimilation. Benshoff and Griffin observe that “the Irish were regarded as an ethnicity and a nationality, whereas they had previously been considered a race” (59).
In the 1930s, however, a few gangster films portrayed Irish-Americans in an anti-Irish light by depicting Irish-American criminality and their involvement in organized crime. This negative image was counter-balanced in some films by the inclusion of the image of the Irish-American law abiding citizen. Both these images are evident in The Public Enemy, with Tom Power’s policeman father and patriotic brother, and in The Departed with Costigan and Dignam who are the most law abiding despite their few deviations. This cop-criminal image of Irish ethnicity is also present in films like Gone Baby Gone(2007) and the most recent film, The Town(2010).
William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed(2007) are two examples of the way Irish ethnicity is represented simultaneously as both positive and negative on screen. As typical of the gangster genre, there is an abundance of violence in both films, which also demonstrate an interconnectivity between ethnicity and violence.
James Cagney wanted to transcend the stereotypical representations of the Irish-American by relocating that figure from the social stratum of the ghetto to the bourgeoise classes, which he achieves in ‘G’-Men (Smith qtd. in Barton 5). Cagney’s most memorable persona is that of the quasi-psychotic and unpredictably explosive gangster in The Public Enemy and White Heat.
Kevin Rockett claims that the success of The Public Enemy (1931) did for the Irish what Little Caesar(1930) did for the Italians (29). However, it also developed Cagney’s stardom with his performance of Tom Powers, the Prohibition era Chicago gangster. Despite the fact that following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 Italian gangsters dominated Chicago’s underworld, there is an abundance of Irish ethnic references in the film. This comes across most powerfully from the importance of the matriarchy, familial loyalty and kinship in the Irish family system.
This is clearly established with the juxtaposition between Tom’s criminality and his brother Mike’s patriotism and abidance of the law. Tom disrupts family unity by engaging in criminality and disputing with his brother, Mike, over it. Rockett contends that the disruption of familial unity is solidified by the deliverance of Tom’s dead body to his mother, at the apogee of the film (29).
However, there is also an attempt at transcending ethnic identity in The Public Enemy. The suit is synonymous with the gangster image. In this film, like the majority of other gangster films, there is a scene where Tom goes to a tailor to get fitted for a suit. This scene conveys a numer of significant transformations. Tom’s acquisition of a suit, a symbol of wealth and civility, suggests he has ascended the social ladder from working-class irish immigrant, but he falsely attains this status by criminal means. Tom attempts to masquerade his authentic working-class, Irish identity by dressing in a suit, which could be interpreted as a denial of his Irish ethnic identity in order to pass as an upper-class American citizen. As can be seen from the film, his attempts at passing is a failure, which culminates in his death.
On the other hand, The Public Enemy‘s fixation with the mother figure is the opposite in The Departed. Colin Sullivan and Billy Costigan are limbo characters who are fixated with finding a father figure and satisfying their, what James Herzog calls in his book of the same title, ‘Father hunger’ (6). Sullivan’s and Costigan’s purgatorial status is also implied from the title of the film, which is taken from a Catholic prayer for the souls in purgatory. Their liminal status is a result of their ambiguous professions. Both Sullivan and Costigan switch between the identities of a cop and criminal. However, their liminality is also a result of their hyphenated, ethnic identities because they are both Irish and American, but neither fully one or the other. To fully achieve one identity is to deny the other because both cannot simultaneously coexist.
Sullivan is desparte to evade his Irish ethnic identity so that he can pass as a fully assimilated citizen of American society. This is suggested by his exclusion of photographs-visual signifiers of the history of his Irish ethnic identity-from his new, 7th floor apartment that is architecturally aligned with the golden globe of the State House. The position of Sullivan’s apartment in the structural stratification of the building symbolises his position in the social stratification of American society. He has risen from the Southie projects of his childhood upbringing to a position that overlooks society, which is also reflected by his profession in the Massachusetts State Police because as a detective his duty is to overlook society. Colin attempts to achieve complete severance from his ethnic roots in South Boston by cutting the last remaining sinew connecting him to it. Sullivan kills Costello-who is appropriately wearing a T-Shirt with ‘Irish’ written on it- to terminate his Irish ethnic past, but total eradication is only possible with his own death. The close up shot of the rat in line with the State house on the ledge of Sullivan’s apartment balcony suggests that a rat has simultaneously infiltrated the hierarchical social strata of American society and its law enforcement system.
In terms of a post-9/11 context, The Departed‘s reference to the absence of an appropriate father figure could be read not only psychologically, but also in political terms as suggesting the absence of an appropriate leader in the American patriarchy. During the aftermath of 9/11, George Bush was overly preoccupied with establishing ‘us-and-them’ binary oppositions in order to vindicate his ‘War on Terrorism’ and his attempt to take economic control of the rich oil resources of the Middle East.
The Departed‘s reference to the absence of a patriarchal figure in society, the ambiguity concerning patriotic loyalty, the blurring of the lines between good and evil, as suggested by the opposition of cop and criminal, could be perceived as a critical commentary on the post-9/11 historical context.
Consequently, both The Public Enemy and The Departed are prime examples of how Irish-American ethnicity is represented on screen in a positive and negative light by juxtaposing the Irish-American criminals against the Irish-American law-abiders and enforcers, which is another way for America to exemplifying the good and bad immigrant that has been portrayed since early American cinema in films like The Black Hand(1906).
Works Cited & Consulted
Barton, Ruth. ed. “Introduction.” Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and Television Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 1-14. Print.
Benshoff, Harry M. and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2004. Print.
Herzog, James. Father Hunger: Explorations with Adults and Children. New Jersey: Analytic P, 2001. Print.
Rockett, Kevin. “The Irish Migrant and Film.” Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and Television Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 17-44. Print.