Glory to Whom? Black Mass and the American Gangster Film

It’s the age-old question: What is it that makes us enjoy art?  Everyone has different answers, which I guess must be realized to truly grasp the enormity of the question.  But in life, we are unfortunately confined to a single perspective, no matter how we try to expand our minds.  The most we can do is recognize what it is that moves us the most as individuals, try to find other people who are moved in similar ways, and strive to experience life with them.  That’s why we feel so close to our favorite artists, because we relate to them on that basic connection of being moved by the same things.  Though each person’s perspective is narrow, it’s the only thing we have to reference when talking about art.  So, as I begin to talk about this film, its important to at least briefly define my perspective.

Empathy in art moves me more than anything else.  A story about creating human connections speaks to my soul, I guess, because it is what I find the most fulfilling. When I think about movies that make me the happiest, they are stories about finding fulfillment in experiences shared with others, and the ones that bring me to tears are about the same burning desire for this kind of connection, but missing it.  This is obviously an oversimplification of the emotional spectrum to which I’m attracted, but it puts my thoughts about Black Mass into perspective pretty well.

“Black Mass” is about the famous South Boston kingpin James Whitey Bulger (Jimmy). With a name like “Black Mass,” I obviously didn’t expect much empathy, but it’s rare to watch a picture completely void of it.  There are attempts, yes, but even those are underdeveloped. For example, the story line about Bulger’s son dying acted only as a macguffin to spur on his spiraling depravity.  The fact that he even had a son was sloppily introduced; it honestly came as a surprise.  Though Jimmy deeply cared about his boy, it was more like constructing a prodigy than genuine interest in helping a person grow.  In one breakfast scene, Jimmy, in response to learning his son got in a fight at school, tells him, “You didn’t get in trouble because you punched someone.  You got in trouble because you punched someone in front of a bunch of people.”  The next mention of his son, he is apparently in a hospital dying on Christmas Eve.  The painful scene of Jimmy holding his boy’s hand being told, “No change in his health,” by a nurse quickly turns into him threatening the life of the boy’s mother who says she wants to pull the plug, because she won’t let her son live as a vegetable.  No matter what direction the movie takes, it always is reeled in my Jimmy’s ruthlessness.

Even the frame story is centered upon the crime lord’s lack of empathy.  The story is told from the perspective of Jimmy’s closest “friends” who are confessing everything to the police upon arrest.  In the mob, family, friends, loyalty, and respect are traditionally the highest values.  But Jimmy’s way of earning these values is solely through fear mongering.  There are multiple scenes in the movie where he kills guys he has worked with for many years simply for speaking out against him one night in a drunken stupor.  His other “friends” see this, and thus learn to obey everything he says.  This is why his scarred crew confesses all to the police via the frame story, because though Jimmy used the words “friends” and “brothers” often, his concept of those things is “I can betray you all I want, but don’t mess with me or I’ll kill you on the spot.”  This attitude is illustrated as we are taken through the sequence of Jimmy strangling his right hand man’s stepdaughter right in front of him, and he could do nothing about it.

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So what makes a movie about the void of human emotion interesting?  Well, there is an entire genre focused on this subject, the American Gangster film.  Maybe it’s these films’ cathartic nature, which allows us to witness our brutish desires being acted out for a few hours, relieving us of them.  We are allowed to imagine the most nefarious version of ourselves; we can do whatever we want, whatever it takes to satisfy our desires.  Or maybe it’s the simplicity in the goal of these nefarious characters.  If life really was only about making as much money and living as lavishly as possible, things certainly would be much more straightforward.

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But that’s not what life is about.  So there is an inherent shallowness in making heroes of gangsters.  It’s true, films like “Scarface” ultimately comment the demise of the depraved nihilist, but at the end of the movie we are still rooting for Tony Montana, just as we hope to see Whitey Bulger escape from the law.  Do we crave the shallowness that these movies allow to experience?  Maybe so, but what happens when we take a realistic look into the lives of these mob bosses?  It sounds horrifying, doesn’t it?  No wonder that genre doesn’t exist in America… But it does exist in the place where the whole concept of gangsters was born, Italy.

As Americans, we can separate ourselves from these gangsters that we make heroes because they aren’t part of our everyday lives.  We don’t actually see what they do to people.  But in certain places in Italy, the mafia controlled many aspects of everyday life for decades throughout history.  That’s why films like “Placido Rizzotto” exist.  In a scene in this film, all the men of the town are shown gathering in the square to wait on the mafia leaders to call on them, that they might be able to work that day to make money to buy bread and cheese for their families.  This isn’t mafia work either, it’s being allowed to go out into the fields and farm, or work the counter at a shop.

The mafia bosses live among the people, and are often almost just as poor as their neighbors, the only difference is that they call the shots.  They are intertwined in politics, and control the economy.  They are hated because they keep the community in poverty, but no one can speak out against them because they are scared.  Their reign of terror is similar to American Gangster films.  In an extremely brutal scene in the film, a mafia boss named Liggio visits a house he goes to everyday for coffee and violates the girl who lives there because she betrayed him.  What makes this violation so extremely difficult to bear is the fact that it’s not committed by some larger than life figure from which you would expect it, it’s coming from a neighbor.  The mafia in Italian Cinema isn’t glorified, but hated.  Italian Cinema portrays the gangsters as swindling neighbors, ruining the neighborhood for their own gain.  But, when you think about it, isn’t that all gangsters are in the American films?

Whitey Bulger says it himself; he’s just a kid from Southie.  In fact, he isn’t much different from anyone else who grew up on his block, besides the fact, of course, that he is a psychopath.  All he does in the film is take advantage of the people around him for his own sick gains.  So why are American films made for us to pull for people like Bulger, while Italian films are make us despise those like Liggio?  Do we need to pull for Bulger just to experience catharsis?  Do we want to oversimplify life like Bulger does, at least for a few hours?  Maybe so, but when you come back to reality, it all falls flat.  There’s no humanity in an experience like that.  There is poignancy in the tragedy and loss of value in “Placido Rizzotto”, but in “Black Mass” there is nothing but a despicable character made up to be cool.  The film’s greatest merits are the fact that Johnny Depp’s performance is so good that you never realize it’s him, and that Benedict Cumberbatch can actually sound like Mark Wahlberg.  Aside from those technicalities, it is an emptying experience.  Although “Black Mass” can be visually beautiful and enthralling, it is void of all empathy and humanity, just like, well, a black mass.

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Bradley Harrison is a senior at College of Charleston. After a long and painful stint as an engineering student at a university in Georgia which you probably have never heard of, he has decided to come back home to his native Charleston and study Spanish and Education. As a keen observer of pop culture, he loves art house cinema, Pitchfork.com, and the Ringer. FOH Army for life.


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