Revisiting Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York in Today’s America



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Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is a film that reminds us that for as long as the United States has welcomed immigrants into the nation, the country has been plagued with xenophobia. Not only does the movie illustrate the country’s division of race, immigration, class, and religion, but the movie also shows the country’s broken democracy from a much-needed historical perspective.


Scorsese’s film is set in New York City during the second year of the Civil War, portraying an influx of foreign-born individuals as the United States was perceived as the land of economic opportunity. Unfortunately, opportunity and transition did not come easily for those who immigrated to the country in the 1860s. Instead of securing economic prosperity and religious freedom, immigrants experienced the opposite: they had access to a very limited number of jobs, suffered from terrible living and working conditions, and faced discrimination by Europeans who had settled in the United States before the late 1800s. [1]


This historical drama sheds light on the Irish Catholic immigrants who were persecuted by the Confederation of American Natives –– also known as the Natives or Know-Nothing political party. Members of the American Natives were called the “Know-Nothings” because their standard reply to questions about their activities and beliefs was, “I know nothing about it.” [2] Oddly, the Natives consisted not of Native Americans but the sons of earlier settlers who were Anglo Saxons and protestants in America.



Scorsese scales down on the tension that lies between the real Know-Nothings and the Irish immigrants from a broader scope into the relationship of two gangs: The Natives, led by William ‘Bill the Butcher’ Cutting, and The Dead Rabbits, led by ‘Priest’ Vallon. The movie begins with The Natives confronting The Dead Rabbits, a gang of Irish immigrants, challenging them to see who would hold power over The Five Points – a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan which is known as New York’s Chinatown in the present day. [3] The battle between the earlier settlers and Irish immigrants did not only serve as the climax of the bitter turf war between the two social groups, but it also revealed the extent of Bill’s hatred towards the Irish immigrants. In the words of Bill the Butcher himself, the battle for The Five Points “is a battle between us natives born rightwise to this fine land [and] the foreign hordes defiling it.” [4] We see bloody hands tearing faces apart, ears ripping off, limbs detaching from bodies, and men falling to the ground until ‘Bill the Butcher’ kills ‘Priest’ Vallon and declares The Dead Rabbits outlawed. The story then shifts its focus to Vallon’s only son, Amsterdam, who was taken to the orphanage as a young boy. Eventually, he moves back to The Five Points to seek revenge against Bill the Butcher.


This opening scene is not only momentous because it establishes the tone of the movie, but it also points out an astounding resemblance between The Natives and present-day white supremacists. The real Know-Nothings in the 1860s supported laws that restricted immigration; a few proposed policies included the deportation of foreign criminals and a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants. [2] The real Know-Nothings wanted to restore their perception of what the racial demographic America should, ideally, look like: pure-bloods and Protestants. As such, the movie echoes this xenophobic idea through Bill’s hostility against immigrants; in his opinion, the Irish are not and can never be a true American like himself. Similarly, the Proud Boys is a modern far-right, anti-immigrant, all-male group. Notorious for their violence in political confrontation, these members take pride in what they believe America should be and bounce off of Trumpian ideas, such as closing the border between the US and Mexico and restricting immigration on multiple fronts. [5]


Discrimination amongst Roman Catholics and Protestants are no longer a contemporary fight as it was 160 years ago, but America is still divided over race, immigration, and class. To clarify, white-on-white discrimination and white-on-black racism cannot and should never be compared to each other; white-on-white discrimination shows bias from one group to another of the same color, but white on black racism is based on the belief that the white race is inherently superior to Black, Indigenous People of Color and that white people should have control over other races. Regardless, the experience of racism between racial groups are vastly different and should never be compared or grouped to one another. Watching Gangs of New York clarified an ongoing trend throughout human history: society is broken because people will always discriminate against other people.

Today, the Trump Administration has divided the United States even more – politically and socially. Because of this, there is a sense of urgency to fight the normalized behavior of discrimination and racial injustice exacerbated by Trump and his beliefs. This led to a national fight against white supremacy, which eventually led to a global fight for the Black Lives Matter Movement. Furthermore America’s discrimination against immigrants, exacerbated under the Trump Administration, further demonstrates the depth of these conflicts. For example, President Trump has signed several executive orders that have affected immigration policy. In particular, the Trump Administration decimated the annual cap of refugees to the US from 110,000 in 2017 (an amount which was initially set by the Obama Administration) [6] to 18,000 in 2020 [7]–– the annual cap is the maximum number of refugees that may be resettled in a year. According to the most recent Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for 2021, the annual cap has officially been set to 15,000. [8]


While watching Gangs of New York, I was disturbed and outraged to see that prejudice and bigotry, based on race and religion, from one group to another has not changed much. The entirety of Trump’s discriminating policies on immigration parallels events depicted in the movie. Scorsese’s cinematic masterpiece portrays the clear and ever-presence of institutions and systems, such as law enforcements or even work places, that continue to practice systemic oppression in the United States. Although race and religion are completely different issues, it is frustrating to see the same group of people as the oppressors: whites (mostly men) who believe that their race and religion is superior to others. Whether “art imitates life” or “life imitates art”, what we see on the screen when we watch Gangs of New York still exists today, and the fact that these conflicts still exist reveals the severity and weight of these issues.

[1] History.com Editors. “U.S. Immigration Timeline.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 21 Dec. 2018, www.history.com/topics/immigration/immigration-united-states-timeline#:~:text=By%20the%20early%201600s%2C%20communities,Puritans%2C%20came%20for%20religious%20freedom.


[2] Boissoneault, Lorraine. “How the 19th-Century Know-Nothing Party Reshaped American Politics.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 26 Jan. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/immigrants-conspiracies-and-secret-society-launched-american-nativism-180961915/.


[3] “Five Points, Manhattan.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 Nov. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Points,_Manhattan.


[4] Scorsese, et al. Gangs of New York. Miramax Films.


[5] Wendling, Mike. “US Election 2020: Who Are the Proud Boys - and Who Are Antifa?” BBC News, BBC, 30 Sept. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2020-54352635.


[6] United States, Congress, Bruno, Andorra. FY2020 Refugee Ceiling and Allocations, 2019. fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/IN11196.pdf.


[7] Baugh, Ryan. 2020, FY2020 Refugee Ceiling and Allocations: 2019, www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2019/refugee_and_asylee_2019.pdf.


[8] Trump, Donald J. “Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2021.” The White House, The United States Government, 2020, www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/presidential-determination-refugee-admissions-fiscal-year-2021/.