The Construction of Race and Nation in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York"

Seminar Paper, 2004

15 Pages, Grade: 2,3 (B)


Table of contents

1. “America was born in the streets” Introduction.

2. Plot Outline.

3. The Construction of Race and Nation
3.1 New York 1846 – The prologue
3.2 The depiction of the Five Points – An image of a cultural melting pot or bleak mean streets?
3.3 The portrayal of the conflict between the Irish immigrants and the Native Americans
3.4 Gangs of New York looks at the Draft Riots.

4. Résumé


1. “America was born in the streets” - Introduction

„I believe in America. America has made my fortune.“ These are the very first two sentences in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather from 1972 - exactly the same year when director Martin Scorsese decided to film Herbert Asbury’s non-fiction book The Gangs of New York.

“Asbury (1891-1963) was a journalist and a pioneer historian of low life, whose Gangs of New York originally appeared in 1928, subtitled an informal history of the underworld.” (Christie 2003, p. 250)

At the beginning of The Godfather: Part II, a film which is about the life of an Italian who immigrates to the United States in the 1920s, the film depicts the arrival of Italian immigrants at the New York harbor. All the passengers of the ship are full of expectation. They are looking at the famous Statue of Liberty, which welcomes America’s new citizens. “Bring us your homeless and your poor”, is written in a poem by Emma Lazarus that is graven on a tablet within the pedestal on which the statue stands. (Cf. Christie 2003, p. 253) This sequence portrays the fulfilment of the American Dream.

In 2002, after nearly 30 years of preparation, Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York which is also set in New York one century before the action of The Godfather takes place, finally was released in the United States.

Scorsese’s film covers a period of New York City's history, from the 1840's through to the bloody Draft Riots of 1863, when graft and corruption permeated every level of government including the police department. The Statue of Liberty had not been built at the time in which Gangs of New York is set (Cf. Metzger 2000, p. 23), and there aren’t any Italians in the film. The movie concentrates on the struggle between the so called Native Americans and a huge number of Irish immigrants who arrive with ships every day.

The picture describes America’s birth from violence and the development of the country into the state which is presented in Coppola’s The Godfather and former pictures by Martin Scorsese like Goodfellas or Casino. Gangs of New York is in a way the foundation of which all the other movies by Scorsese are based on.

Scorsese said: “Creating a specific world for Gangs of New York was very different from the underworlds that I dealt with in Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino.“ (Christie 2003, p. 251) This statement signifies that America and its nation must have changed in the meantime.

However, how has the American nation developed over the years into what it is today? What was it that formed America? How portrays Scorsese the birth of the nation in his film which tagline runs “America was born in the streets”? These are some of the questions I will deal with in this Proseminararbeit.

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines the term race as “a very large group of human beings of the same colour and/or physical type.” “A nation is a group of people who share the same history and usually a language, and often live in the same area or independent country.” (Summers 1995, p. 1163)

The central issues of this paper will be the cultural construction of race and nation in the film Gangs of New York. Furthermore , I will investigate how the director portrays what he calls “one of the most horrifying (and least discussed) events in American history” (Scorsese 2002, p. 20) in the film which describes the life in New York’s slums, the so called Five Points, in the mid-nineteenth century.

2. Plot Outline

Set in the turbulent streets of lower Manhattan in the mid-nineteenth century, the time in which America was founded, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York depicts the politically corrupt and volatile social climate of New York during the early years of the Civil War. While the North is fighting the South, the difference between the insular opulence of uptown life and the lawless destitution of those living downtown becomes more intolerable. Irish immigrants and emancipated slaves add to the selling numbers of the poor. The City is a bomb ready to explode.

The action unfolds at the Five Points, a notoriously corrupt, gang-infested area between New York harbor and lower Broadway, where the native-born (Protestant) Americans and the Irish (Catholic) immigrants battle for control of the city. Amsterdam Vallon (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young Irish-American who has returned to New York, after fifteen years in a house of reform, to seek revenge against Bill the Butcher (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), the nativist gang leader who has killed Vallon’s father (played by Liam Neeson), the leader of an Irish gang called the Dead Rabbits, when Amsterdam was a child.

The movie follows Amsterdam as he infiltrates Bill’s inner circle, falls in love with Jenny Everdeane (played by Cameron Diaz), a beguiling pickpocket, and fights for the honor of his family and people. His personal struggle explodes in tandem with the 1863 Draft Riots, the most dramatic episode of urban unrest in American history: The movie shows how a large crowd of New York working people move uptown to express their collective displeasure at the new draft law that exacerbates long-simmering class tensions in the city, because the rich people who live in the noble area around Fifth Avenue, were allowed to buy their freedom for 300 dollars, a sum of money which couldn’t be raised by the poor immigrants who live in the Five Points. Over the course of three days bloody street battles rage across New York City's rich and poor neighborhoods. Before peace is finally restored with the arrival of federal troops, which come directly from the battlefield at Gettysburg, New York City's Draft Riots become the nation's single most violent civil disorder, with more lives lost than in any other instance of urban domestic violence in American history. During the Draft Riots the reformed Dead Rabbits join one more battle against Bill the Butcher’s native Americans. Amsterdam is able to take revenge and kills Bill the Butcher, and the time of the medieval gang-battles finally comes to an end.

3. The Construction of Race and Nation

3.1 New York 1846 – The prologue

A close-up of two eyes and a scraping sound, this is the beginning of the opening-sequence of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. The sequence ends ten minutes later with a bird's eye view of the peninsula Manhattan.

The detail and the epic proportions, the labour of a city and the story of the creation of a world power, Scorsese never tried to create such a monumental picture before.

Like most of his films Gangs of New York is set in his hometown. Moreover, this film is not relevant to New Yorkers only. The film rips up the postcards of American history and reassembles them into a violent, blood-soaked story of America’s bare-knuckled past.

The soul and identity of America is represented by the Manhattan of the mid-nineteenth-century, or putting it more precisely by the Five Points.

The eyes of the opening-sequence belong to Priest Vallon who gathers his faithful friends to fight a bloody battle against his enemy, the native William Cutting aka Bill the Butcher. Vallon is the leader of a gang of similar Irish immigrants called the Dead Rabbits. He helps his people defend themselves and protect the niche of land that they live on. The Irish people and Vallon’s young son Amsterdam follow Vallon's Celtic cross through the dark underground passages up to a door, which gets kicked off by Monk, a man who demands payment from Priest Vallon for fighting.

The film, the immigrants and the nation, all of them catch sight of the light of the new world in this particular moment. After less than three minutes, the whole core-message of Scorsese’s film becomes very obvious.

All of the driving forces of the new world are gathered together in this opening-sequence: Immigration, the eternal source of conflicts and rejuvenation. Religion, which still is the origin of the American sense of mission. And money, that regulates all economic, historical and human relationships.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Construction of Race and Nation in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York"
University of Cologne  (Institute for the English Language and its Didactic)
Seminar: The Cultural Analysis of Contemporary American Films
2,3 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
552 KB
Construction, Race, Nation, Martin, Scorsese, Gangs, York, Seminar, Cultural, Analysis, Contemporary, American, Films
Quote paper
Boris Kirfel (Author), 2004, The Construction of Race and Nation in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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