Friday, August 1, 2014

What Gangs of New York Got Wrong

Every Fall, Americanists teaching the US History survey face the same dilemma: To Show or Not To Show clips from the 2002 Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York. It is such a great film. It is such an historically inaccurate bordering on epically WRONG film.

Gangs of New York makes us historians crazy because of its terribly misleading narrative about class, race, immigration, and enlistment in the Civil War. Fortunately, one scholar's work is helping to challenge the myths Scorsese has perpetuated, while  filling in some crucial gaps in our understanding of the relationship between the Irish and the Civil War. Check out Damiel Shiel's piece Gangs of New York: Recruiting the Irish ‘Straight Off the Boat’. And I'll definitely be sharing this fascinating document, "NO RECRUITING IN CASTLE GARDEN" with my students this Fall to cap our discussion of the film.

What I love about Gangs of New York is the way it captures the riotous urban jungle of mid-19th-century New York. I use the NY Draft Riot clips in my lecture to illustrate the intensifying and violent racial and class struggles in the urban North, to help my students imagine what an urban riot would have been like, and give them some ways to visualize the different styles of dress and manner and modes of everyday interaction in cities at this time.

Another historical film that is very effective at capturing the strangeness and grittiness of urban landscapes and cultures in the nineteenth century is in fact Steven McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. Most movie reviewers comment on the exceptionally beautiful and evocative way McQueen captured the Louisiana Bayou, which becomes its own character interacting with and commenting on Solomon's journey. I also love the steamboat and the dock scenes in Washington D.C. (especially as I have become more interested in steamboat transportation and culture). That scene that begins with the water wheel and continues with Paul Giamatti standing on the dock calling for Platt is close to perfect.

P.S. If you're casting around for other historical films to use in class, I also like the first episode of the PBS documentary The Abolitionists. Production values on documentaries have increased significantly and I've found this first episode to be a very compelling portrayal of the emerging culture of American abolitionists. And there is the little reward of a love story between Angelina Grimke and Theodore Ward.


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