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Shaft flashes a police badge to criminals in the first part of the movie, establishing his role as the "good" guy in the film, although he is from the same "underworld" as the rest of the black criminals in the movie. This film, as many others, show that the black hero, as Stainfield states can gain "dominion over the urban space of the street" which "holds out the promise of escape from the confinement of ghetto life" (284). This necessary escape for the black hero often leads to a betrayal of the criminals to the police. The criminality featured in these films emphasized the power and violence of "blackness," especially in the perspective of white directors, which entertained mainstream audiences at the time (Benshoff & Griffin, 89). Although fulfilling various fantasies about black culture and life in the inner city, the movies still upheld the moral beliefs and stereotypes that mainstream society had around the black gangster icon.
The black gangster of the 70s influenced the rising interest in the world of gangs and mobsters in Hollywood cinema in the late 1970s and 80s. Primarily headed by Coppola and Scorsese, Italian-American mobsters further utilized the narrative conventions employed in the 1950s organized crime syndicate movies and 1970s black exploitation movies. The importance of the family prefigured highly in these films, more so than in the other decades, as well as did religion and the notion of honor. As Reid points out, The Godfather and The Black Godfather (a black-oriented remake) dramatized "codes of criminal behavior in an honorable light" but obviously differed in their racial allegiances (52). Coppola presented an interesting counterpoint to the 1950s gangster who appeared to be afflicted with a psychological issue that was the root of his criminality, which were more framed by the pursuit of respect for the criminal and his family (Benshon & Griffin, 63). Scorsese's films were much more violent and presented the criminal as destined to meet a violent end due to his criminal behavior (Benshon & Griffin, 65). This can be seen in his 1973 film Mean Streets where the main protagonist, Charlie, his a small-time hood trying to make good, but fails due largely in part to his strong bond with his cousin Johnny Boy, who is dangerously psychotic. Like the 1940s gangster who bonds with the legion of gangsters around him, Charlie also faces conflict because he must make a choice between his cousin and the love of a woman. The protagonist is still the criminal, and his continued association to the antagonist of the film foreshadows the end of the film. One can also see this in the both of Scorsese's other films GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995), where the gangsters who are the protagonists in the films descend into their bloody and violent ends. The criminal behavior is not condoned for the most part, but the desire for normalcy and family is imbued in all of Scorsese's films, even though there is a wistful sense that it is impossible for the criminal to achieve in the end.
The HBO show The Sopranos (1996-2004) is probably the most current depiction of the Italian-American gangster/mobster. The "social system" represented in the TV series follows a "divide and conquer model," which takes from the existence of American corporate culture (Nochimson, 185). However, the criminal, Tony Soprano, is a character that one can sympathize with even though he is often depicted as angry, enraged and extremely violent. As with The Godfather, the familial and social perspective that the series tends to focus on allows the audience to relate better with the main character, despite his moral affliction, which is indeed his own propensity for criminality. However, the focus on family, which often includes foreign relatives and connections, allows for the viewer to connect to the main characters' passion (Nochimson, 186). While the "good guys" (as represented by police, federal agents and the law), are often not depicted with any familial ties. This ultimately causes the audience to adhere to the foreign which allows the criminal to be more acceptable. The psychological unrest that Tony experiences, however, demonstrates the perpetual imbalance of his life, as he is often afflicted with guilt but then also engages in psychopathic behavior in a consistent basis (which is part of the lifestyle that he chooses to be a part of in the series). The criminal behavior he exhibits is still there but the humanity in the criminal is layered throughout his actions and responses. This varied perspective on the modern gangster gives the viewer a sense that the higher moral ground does not excuse the vast complexity of human emotions (Nochisom, 201).
The " gangsta" film trend of the late 90s uses similar narrative conventions and stereotypes, yet also explores the layered range of human emotions in the criminal. While there are still divisions between the "good guys" and "bad guys" in the films, the protagonist is often a victim of violence and betrayal who attempts to bring the conflict and those involved to justice. John Singleton's Boyz in the Hood (1991) is probably the most apt example of a film that upholds the premise that there are "educational opportunities that help one avoid the overdetermined social factors of racism and poverty" (Reid, 53). Contrary to this film, Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City (1991) and Ernest Dickerson's Juice (1992) are films that use the narrative conventions and iconography of the modern Hollywood gangster film (Reid, 38). This convention paints a one-dimensional picture of the criminal, in this case, the representation of the "bad nigger" type tends to dominate the film, communicates that he is driven by capitalistic desires and will not assimilate like the middle class blacks (Reid, 53-54). However, both directors Singleton and Dickerson show that there is a complex array of issues at play in the lives of the films' characters. Once community and familial attachments have been explored in the films, like in The Sopranos, the audience can relate despite stereotypical portrayals of violence, drug addiction and unwed mothers in the films themselves. The representation of the ghetto functions as to disconnect the audience from the characters, who desire to escape yet given only two options: embracing ghetto life or racial assimilation into the middle class lifestyle (which accepts white mainstream reality). The criminal is either subjected to these conventions by the claustrophobic options, or is destined to be killed off by the forces around him. Menace II Society (1993) promotes the theme of gang violence through the protagonists who are young Black men in search of their place in society, as taught by them by their older gang-involved counterparts in the film. The film itself ends in the tragic death of one of the protagonists, but also depicts the benefits on focusing on a life not involved with crime or being in a gang (despite it being the inherent issues of survival in the "ghetto"). While generally appalling to the black middle class, these movies help set the stage for Black films that focused on the moral and social uplift of these young "criminals" involved with the inner city (Benshoff & Griffin, 94-85). The "gangsta" as a criminal is tended to be a morally bankrupt character who is often obsessed with money and his "street cred." Hollywood film's treatment of the "gangsta" is often one of derision, offering only the possibility of hope to the protagonist who takes advantage of opportunities offered to him by a potential role model, who is often an older black man. An example of this narrative can be seen in the Boaz Yakin's Fresh (1994) which explores the life of a young boy named Michael who lives in the crime-ridden projects of Brooklyn, NY. Although extremely bright and gifted, Michael becomes involved in gang life but uses his new role as a plan to extricate him and his drug addicted sister from their hopeless lives. In a sense, Michael is not the criminal in the film, but learns how to take advantage of criminals. Samuel L. Jackson plays the one adult role model involved in his life, who tries to help him out of his difficult situation through games of chess through various intervals of the film. The film does not use conventional stereotypes of young black men, but instead shows the intricate issues at stake in the emotional lives of youth that live in the ghettos. The treatment of the criminals in the film is obviously biased against them, but Michael uses the rules of their game to trick them into getting his way. Cunning intelligence is celebrated over the cunning use of violence which is conventionally used in most "gangsta" films that belong to this genre. This film could also be seen as an influence of depictions of "gangtsa" youth in the television series The Wire (2002-08), who although are imbued with a sense of criminality,…[continue]
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