In a classic article, the sociologist Daniel Bell described organized crime as a peculiar ladder of success. With other avenues of opportunity closed off by discrimination and a lack of education, organized crime provided a way to express impulses for entrepreneurship and social mobility. In an article in Sunday's New York Times, William McDonald discusses how movies about organized crime also reflect another important theme: the destruction of family.
"No matter the ethnic strip," he writes, "movies about organized crime often tell a universal story about the destruction of family." Yet while families may crumble in these film, family is also something that the criminal revere and celebrate. "Spasms of bloodshed are balances," he observes, "against rituals affirming blood ties--baptisms and weddings and feasts. The gangsters may even invoke family as their justification...And in most movies the crime organization itself either is a family enterprise or is modeled after one...."
The article cites the film "Little Odessa" as only the most recent example of the theme that the price of organized crime is family destruction. While the Godfather series is certainly the archetypal example of organized crime as a tragedy of family ruin, McDonald notes that the theme is cross-cultural including Italians, Irish, Jews, Africans, and Chinese, among others. "State of Grace," the 1990 film about Hell's Kitchen on Manhattan's West Side, focuses on Irish Americans. The 1994 movie "Sugar Hill" focuses on a Harlem family. "Little Odessa" tells the story of a Russian Jewish family in Brooklyn. A variant of such themes can be found in films of Asian mobs, McDonald argues, since crime organizations like the Japanese yakuza are not family based organizations, but rather surrogate families that bring together social losers, orphans and misfits--though they are organized like family enterprises and along patriarchal lines.
Date: Tue, 23 May 1995 12:07:49 -0500 From: "Steven Mintz, U. Houston" <SMintz@UH.EDU> Subject: Re: Organized Crime and Family Values
From: IN%"firstname.lastname@example.org" "Richard J. Herskowitz" 23-MAY-1995 09:58:26.94
What the New York Times article on ethnic gangsters and their destruction of family doesn't mention is that gangster films, as many other commentators have pointed out, commonly depict the incompatibility of capitalist business values and ethnic family values; the tragedy is usually the gangster's futile belief that business interests can serve family goals. So, how come, after decades of these popular movies, are "family values" not associated with ethnic groups and proponents of government regulation of capitalism's excesses? It's a naive question I know, but it's very frustrating to read these New York Times "think pieces" and not seeing the obvious political issues being raised.
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