People who are decently well-off usually don’t appreciate how thin the line between “organized crime” and “local government” can be for the very poor.
In the Great Depression, notorious mobster Al Capone organized soup kitchens in Chicago. More recently, Brazilian gangs, in response to government failure to take action against the pandemic, declared a unilateral quarantine order in Rio de Janeiro, saying “If the government won’t do the right thing, organized crime will”. In some parts of Japan, the yakuza really are the de facto local government, and in the wake of natural disasters like earthquakes, they’re often faster to provide aid than the Japanese government is.
When you’re poor, the sad truth is that the de jure government probably doesn’t care about you much. There probably aren’t a lot of legitimate jobs in your area; you can’t afford to move away; even if you’re very talented, someone with better connections or a fancier-sounding degree will probably beat you out when competing for the few good jobs available.
This is especially true for marginalized groups, in particular when they’re targeted by law enforcement. In a legal system like ours, there are so many pointless and mutually contradictory laws that everyone is guilty of something. If the police watch you for long enough, they will eventually find something that they can arrest you for. (Obviously it’s even worse if they’re willing to lie or plant evidence, but the point is that it can happen even without this.)
Even if they only put you away for a few weeks, a criminal record will probably kill your chances of getting a legitimate job in the future. If you want to serve your community, or even just put food on the table, your only choice may be an illegal job.
But “criminal” doesn’t mean “evil”. Modern governments criminalize lots of things they really shouldn’t. If I couldn’t get a legal job, I would be pretty happy selling weed. I don’t think weed should be illegal, and there would be plenty of satisfied customers, so I would be open to sticking my thumb in the government’s eye over this issue if I didn’t have any other option. A similar argument can be made for other drugs, prescription medications, etc. — even giving medical care without a license. If none of these work for you, then remember that during prohibition, the government criminalized alcohol. Ask yourself how guilty you would feel selling booze in the 1920’s, if you had no other job prospects.
Since criminal activity is often the only way for the very poor to make their way in the world, criminal organizations are often the only local institutions around. And because the official government doesn’t really care about these neighborhoods (they may even be actively antagonistic), criminal organizations often end up being the only thing protecting the poor.
The affluent have a hard time understanding all of this, and for many people, a reasoned argument can’t shake the scary image of the criminal or gang member as an uncultured, unreasoning thug.
The good news is that this is what art is for. Fiction can give us, even if only distantly, the sense of what life is like for people who are different from us.
So let’s imagine what a movie to flip this script would look like. Our hero is a young black man who grew up in a poor but respectable suburb of a major American city. He’s talented, but there aren’t many opportunities in his hometown. Like many young men with few options, he joins the Army. He’s quickly recognized as a crack shot and natural leader, gets recruited to the Green Berets, and receives multiple commendations. He also makes some very close friends. Once he returns to civilian life, one of his best friends from the Army runs for mayor, wins, and the protagonist spends the next few years helping his friend try to make things better in their city. He makes some money, starts dating a woman from a well-respected family, and begins thinking of settling down.
But when war is declared in the Middle East, his friend the mayor returns to military service to serve his country, and our hero joins him. They’re shipped overseas, and see a few years of intense combat. His friend the mayor goes missing in battle, presumed captured; our hero is injured and, after recuperating, is honorably discharged from service.
He’s sent home, only to find that things are worse than ever. The new mayor neglects social services in favor of pursuing a “tough on crime” agenda popular with the middle class. The police are encouraged to make lots of high-profile arrests, and they quickly grow fat on civil forfeiture. Constant harassment by the police leads anyone with the means to try to leave the poor parts of town. As money flows out of the neighborhood, so do most businesses, taking with them the last few legitimate jobs.
Soon, almost no one can make a living without turning to some kind of crime. Often this is only opening a hairdresser’s without a license, or running a restaurant in your living room, but the cops crack down on these businesses just the same — and legally, they’re in the right.
The first thing our hero sees when he gets home is the police arresting a kid who tried to steal food from a gas station. He steps in to try to help, but the cops pull their guns on him. With his Special Forces training, he’s able to disarm the cops, free the kid, and make his escape, all without hurting anyone. What he doesn’t know is that he’s made a powerful enemy. One of the cops he embarrassed was the new sheriff, a close ally of the corrupt mayor, who recognizes him. The sheriff puts out an APB, and soon our hero finds that cops are crawling all over the city looking for him, and no one will take him in.
He eventually finds shelter with a preacher at a local church, who has seen enough of police brutality. He had shut down the church and begun to turn to drinking, but seeing someone stand up to the cops and get away with it has given him new hope for the future.
It’s not just the preacher who takes note. Our hero starts attracting followers. First it’s his young cousin, a flashy dresser and accomplished boxer, hot-headed but idealistic. Next it’s a real beast of a man, a former bouncer who’s out of work and goes by “Lil’ Jon” or something, who impresses our hero by first beating him in a fight, and then throwing him off a bridge and into the river. Soon, more than a dozen people are hanging out in the basement of the abandoned church.
Our hero can’t get legal work — in the eyes of the law, he’s a wanted criminal, who assisted the escape of a thief, resisted arrest, and assaulted officers. For one reason or another, neither can any of his followers. Even if he turned himself in, now that he knows he personally embarrassed the sheriff, he’s not confident he would survive to make it to trial.
But just because he can’t get legal work doesn’t mean he can’t make a difference for his community. The cops have been stealing property, cars, even cash from anyone they want, so he decides to steal it back. Under cover of night, the new band of friends break into the impound lot and take as many cars as they can drive away, leaving the guards hogtied but otherwise unharmed.
With this success under their belt, the group grows bolder. They find the location of a multi-millionaire CEO’s summer home up in the hills, break in, and take everything of value. Next they knock over an armored car on its way to a bank, taking everything and even recruiting the driver to join their cause. With so much money on hand, the preacher helps them launder it, distributing the money to those in need and making it appear to come from the church.
Their fame, or maybe infamy, grows. When the cops try to arrest people on trumped-up charges, our hero intervenes, and many of the people he saves (now considered criminals, whether they like it or not) decide to join him. His fiancée escapes from her controlling parents and finds him hiding in the urban jungle. When bounty hunters are sent to track him down, more often than not, they end up being convinced by his cause and joining him instead. Even some of the cops on the force throw away their badges and turn outlaw. The sheriff and the mayor stop calling him a “violent wanted criminal” and start calling him a “notorious gang leader”.
The rest of the movie is dedicated to all of the tricks they pull. They place a call on an anonymous tip line, “revealing” that the gang headquarters is in an abandoned mall. Half of the cop cars in the city converge on the mall, leaving the gang to heist a shipment of insulin, which they distribute for free to the needy. Our hero disguises himself and poses as a bounty hunter, joining the hunt for his own gang. He crashes a fundraiser at the mayor’s house and tells the rich what he really thinks of them. He gets captured and the rest of the gang has to break him out of jail. Eventually, his friend the mayor is released in a prisoner-of-war exchange, comes back, wins election once again, and pardons them all. The wicked mayor and the sheriff are exposed for their crimes and held accountable, and our hero finally marries his sweetheart. And of course, you’d call it Hood Robin.
(This idea isn’t even quite as out there as it sounds.)
One thought on “Film Concept: Gangsters, Thugs, and Local Government”
A part of the backstory in The Godfather (often missed) is that Al Pacino’s character was a decorated Korean War serviceman, then gradually grows into the role of Capo di Capi as his father sickens and dies. In the wedding at the beginning of the movie he’s wearing his uniform. There is an implicit parallelism – in both settings, he was engaged in instrumental organized violence against an outgroup and protecting an ingroup to which he was fiercely loyal.