Gangs on Film
When I think of gangs on film, I like to bust it into three categories, Urban Gangland, American Mafioso, and Italian Crime. Urban Gangland would be movies that deeply detail the savage lifestyles of American drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and of course street gangs. If I wanted to go into even deeper detail I could break that into two more categories. Urban pre-85, containing films like Shaft, Super Fly, Hell up in Harlem, Black Caesar, Foxy Brown, etc. And Urban post-84, containing films like Crackhouse, Colors, Boyz N the Hood, Menace 2 Society, Juice, and Above the Rim.
All films, drug and/or gang related leave a mark on film more tainted that any other genre. This is where fiction meets reality and where the struggles of daily life in the streets of the classic urban neighborhood are covered in the blood of their immoral deeds. Many would call Urban pre-85 Blaxploitation…which is a valid term but there is more to the genre than the exploitation classics…its an Urban thing. Urban films from the Blaxploitation era dawn around the late 60s early 70s with Slaves (69) and Cotton Comes to Harlem (70).
Earlier I mentioned the more popular ones of the genre but above all, the true crown belongs to Blacula (72). Of those from the post-84 era I say the rarely seen Crackhouse comes up strong. With loads of Coke, Crack Rock, G’s and Chevatos, this 1989 classic starring Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree provide some of the duos greatest acting ever. The movie is about a gang member, played by Greg Gomez, who helps out the cops by going undercover and nailing the drug lord, Jim Brown, who has corrupted his girl friend and stolen from his life. This film is very intense; I had the pleasure of seeing it aired on TV this past year. It isn’t available on DVD yet, but if you happen to catch it on the old tube…I highly recommend it.
American Mafioso would be categorized as the more flashy higher-class crime dramas. Containing classics such as the Godfather and Mean Streets, to Goodfellas, Casino, and the ever-popular Sopranos. You might think what does American Mafioso have to do with urban gangland. The answer is…plenty. Although you see more Cadillacs, and Cuban cigars than your average urban gang film, the one thing they all have in common is their occupation. Whether you’re a well-dressed pimp to a low class drug dealer or street hustler, your still pretty much the same. Differences occur in regional settings, one being the city and the other being the ghetto. You could even call these movies “gangster films” because that is what they predominately are. I tend not to use that term when referring to these movies, because when I think of a classic gangster film I think of those from the 1930s and 40s in black and white. But those wont be covered for a while. In terms of quality, their wont ever be a film greater than the Godfather trilogy. It was truly the first of its kind. It had class, showed style, and was highly accurate in its detail of the 50s Mafia power struggle. Francis Ford Copolla is a true genius. As the greatest modern Mafia film, I have to choose Goodfellas. Something about a factual true to life story tends to draw attention to the viewers.
And lastly, the Italian Crime genre. Straight from the green horns that bring you splatter classics such as Zombie and Cannibal Ferox, these foreign films show a more violent and sadistic side of the underworld. Of these films the most popular actor in the genre is Fabio Testi, famous for his appearances in Revolver (77), and Contraband (83). Although the most popular directors of this genre are Fulci and Lenzi, I’d have to tip my hat to the underrated Antonio Racioppi who directed “The Black Hand”. One of my all time favorite movies, starring the late great Lionel Stander. Before Coppola’s The Godfather, or Scorsese’s Goodfellas, The Black Hand had cast its murderous shadow over the mean streets of New York. It was a time when extortion and prostitution reared its ugly face in full view of corrupt judges and politicians. The Black Hand is a graphically violent film about the birth of the Mafia at a time when the Sicilian immigrants’ only choice in life was to slave for the fifty cents a day or join the “family” in a world where the streets are paved with blood.