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Reel Life Gangsters—The Mafia in Pop-Culture

In the 1860s, the beautiful, sunny island of Sicily became a part of the Italian state. Although this move improved the economy of the region, hard-working Sicilians began to fall prey to the growing menace of bandits and thieves looking to make a quick buck. Since Italy lacked a clear political structure at that time and still relied on the obsolete custom of feudalism, the Sicilians received no protection or justice from the state.

Eventually, the residents of Sicily formed groups to protect themselves from the often-hostile occupying forces, as well as from other regional groups of Sicilians. These groups, which later became known as clans or families, developed their system for justice and retribution, carrying out their actions in secret and further evolved into small private armies known as the mafie.  Their intentions were far from sincere though, as they soon started using the pretence of protection to intimidate and extort money from civilians, thus gaining total control over businesses in that area, as well as furthering their politically motivated agendas.  In this small part of the world, amidst all the turmoil, the Mafia, a crime syndicate, was born, and was set to affect the world in unimaginable ways.

Arrival in America

Due to widespread poverty, famine, and political instability in Italy, a large number of people emigrated to America in 1890 to become a part of the New Immigration, the third and largest wave of emigration from Europe. As with any immigrant group, the Italians brought with them their culinary treasures and affected the linguistics as well, seeing as how the New York accent is reminiscent of an Italian dialect. However, one of the more significant influences would be that in the sector of organised crime, and in a few short years, the seeds of the Mafia were sown in the city of New York.

America’s third wave of immigration. Source:

The stepping stone for the establishment of the Mafia in the United States was when the Prohibition began in 1920. It put a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages and lasted for around thirteen years. Despite these bans, the high demand for it created an atmosphere that tolerated crime as a means to provide liquor to the public, even among the lawmakers. The Prohibition came as a boon for those seeking to establish the Mafia. With the help of politicians and the police, the Mafia brought in millions of gallons of illegal alcohol each year and racked up huge profits. At the time of Prohibition, those crusading against the establishment were seen as heroes, which helped the Mafia build a reputation of fear yet admiration for themselves.  The most prominent among them were the five families, notably the Maranzano/Bonanno family, the Profaci/Colombo family, the Mangano/Gambino family, the Luciano/Genovese family,  and the Gagliano/Lucchese family. These families controlled most of the political and law enforcement scene, which made their incarceration even more difficult. At this time emerged among the ranks, arguably the most notorious Mafia leader of all time, Al Capone, who’d go on to inspire many Mob-related books and countless more movies.

Over the next thirty years, the Mafia managed to embed itself in all forms of American Life. The early days of American Cinema romanticised the Mafia in Hollywood with countless depictions of the Mob life, with Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932), loosely based on Al Capone’s life, being the most prominent among them. While these movies highlighted the lifestyles of the members of the Mafia, the audience looked up to an unconventional way of life full of action and immense power. For a period after this, with the advent of World War II, Mafia movies took a backseat as the public targeted its attention on the war. This however changed with Mario Puzo’s book, The Godfather.

Portrayal in Film—The Godfather Trilogy

The Godfather was a groundbreaking addition to the gangster movie genre and cinema as a whole. This masterpiece of a film described the life of an Italian-American immigrant and Mafia boss, Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, and his trials and tribulations as the other Mafia bosses turn against him. It also sets the scene for his son Michael Corleone, showing his gradual ascent of power, from a college senior to a ruthless Mafia boss. The sequel is darker and more violent than its predecessor and revolves around Michael Corleone, who takes over the business. Part III is largely considered the forgotten movie in the trilogy, and rightly so, because compared to the last two Godfather movies, it was a disappointment panned by fans and critics alike. The trilogy showed to the public a more sensitive and humane side of the Mafia while glorifying the concept of omertà, a code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to the police. 

Considered to be one of the best series by many, the movies were critically acclaimed and well received by the public who picked up on the recurring themes of loyalty to the family and other gang members. The cinematography and depth of the personalities of the characters, played by legends of this genre such as Al Pacino, made the audience root for and feel sympathetic towards the members of the Mafia, despite them being criminals. This series played an integral role in changing the public’s perception of the Mafia. 

Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino in a still from The Godfather II. Source:

Post-Godfather Movies

While it was a daunting task to replicate what Francis Ford Coppola had done with the Godfather movies, over the next three decades, many movies came close. Films like The Untouchables (1987), Donnie Brasco (1997) and especially Martin Scorsese’s The Goodfellas (1990) gave a much more realistic portrayal of the inner workings of the Mob. Hailed by many as ‘the most realistic depiction of the Mafia’, Martin Scorsese, through ‘The Goodfellas’, completely changed the image of a typical Mafia boss to that of a leader immersing himself in various vices like drugs, gambling, greed, and adultery, to name a few. In stark contrast to the Godfather trilogy, these movies showed a more morally conflicted and darker side to the business. The dialogues in these movies were replaced by creative, foul-mouthed, and sometimes hilarious one-liners that set the trademark dialogue for future movies.

Around this time there was a strict crackdown on organised crime by the FBI and the government during which the RICO Act that called out for strict action against organised crime, was introduced. The movies in the genre too began to focus on plots revolving around ‘rats’, or spies, and informants of the FBI within the Mafia. While these loosely stuck to the concept of family values, honour, and omertà, there was an additional edge of suspense that further enhanced the plots in the genre.

Johnny Depp and Al Pacino in a still from Donnie Brasco. Source:

Another aspect of this genre of movies that is frequently overlooked is the use of subtleties to make it more appealing. Things like the colour scheme, lighting, setting, and props, among other things, go a long way in enhancing the appeal of a Mafia movie. These movies generally have dark lighting, with blacks and greys being common to signal suspense and evil. A notable usage is of the colour red, which women in these movies tend to wear on their clothes and their lips. It’s meant to show violence, danger, and ferocity, tropes commonly associated with Mob-related movies. Moreover, the costumes of the characters help in unconsciously establishing a power dynamic in the minds of the audience, where the Mob bosses are dressed in formal, expensive suits compared to the soldier, who is often exclusively dressed in a loosely buttoned shirt. Props also play an integral role, with alcohol, guns, cigarettes, luxury cars, and bundles of cash often tying into the theme and storyline of these films.

The Mafia on Television

By the 1990s, the Mafia genre was a massive success in the movies, and there were many attempts to replicate this on television. The shows on air at that time, like NYPD Blue and Law and Order, regularly showed mobsters, albeit, in a bad light. This, however, changed with the arrival of The Sopranos (1999), a highly praised show which in its own way, brought the genre back to the mainstream. The show revolved around Anthony Soprano, a family man and a Mafia boss, and his struggles as he attempts to strike a balance between the two aspects of his life.

Anthony Soprano had an array of mental issues, including going through a mid-life existential crisis and having panic attacks that caused him to faint, for which he visited a psychiatrist to whom he confided in. A Mafia boss visiting a shrink might seem like an absurd concept, but the creators managed to pull this off brilliantly on screen, with an almost perfect and seamless transition between the two contrasting worlds this man lived in. David Chase, the creator, made a bold move by casting Italian-American actors for almost all the roles in the show. Nevertheless, it paid off, as there was a definite sense of realism in the way the actors portrayed all the characters.

The Mob family from ‘The Sopranos’. Source:

The Negative Stereotyping of Italian-Americans

While the genre of Mafia films has undoubtedly influenced cinema and set a precedent for crime movies, it has also created a negative stereotype against Italian-Americans, who have publicly spoken out on this. In 1970, the Italian American Civil Rights League held a rally to stop production of The Godfather. As for The Sopranos, the National Italian American Foundation has rallied against the show as an offensive caricature, while organisers of New York City’s Columbus Day Parade refused to permit Sopranos cast members to march in the parade for several years running.

The effect of Mafia on popular culture has been immense and is likely to keep growing for years to come. However, continual exploitation of this small section of violent, sociopathic gangsters has not done justice to the large community of Italian-Americans who have shaped American culture and history, and to this day, suffer from the negative consequences of these movies. With the rise of political correctness, such movies have fallen out of favour with the younger, socially aware audience. But the influence of this genre of movies is undoubtedly immense, and as with all classic movies, it will continue to have a cult following that will always cherish it and strive to keep its legacy alive.