I love gangster movies–not just for the violence, intrigue, and bravado–but because these ruthless, vindictive criminals have taught me how to be a better man and a better person.
I strive to be good and am blessed to have a lot of role models. I’ve written about some of them, like what I have learned from my Mom (twice actually), what I learned from my Dad, and what I learned from becoming a father myself. I’m lucky that people generally tell me I’m a “good guy.” So it was ironic to me that–with all my introspection and the abundance of role models I have in my life, one of the clearest examples of the kind of man I want to be comes from a one-off line from the Netflix show Peaky Blinders. 1
Peaky Blinders the show is set in early 20th-century Birmingham, England, and centers around the Peaky Blinders the gang, an organized crime family loosely based on a real historical criminal organization. Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby, the head of the Peaky Blinders gang. He is ruthless, ambitious, violent, and calculating. But over the course of the show’s multiple seasons, Tommy makes everyone around him wealthy. He also viciously and aggressively enforces boundaries–protecting his business interests and his family at all costs. In the process, he loses loved ones and endures all kinds of mental and physical anguish.
In one episode early on, Tommy’s sister is worried that the family’s illegal dealings will catch up to them–especially since she is about to have children. In a pivotal scene, she is sharing her fears with her Aunt Polly. “Pol,” as they call Aunt Polly, is something of a matriarch to the family. She has a lot to say about her niece’s fear that her baby will be taken away, because the police actually took Polly’s children away from her after a neighbor reported Polly and the family for their criminal dealings almost two decades earlier.
The backdrop of the conversation between Polly and her troubled niece is the fact that Tommy Shelby and the Peaky Blinders are the dominant gang, ascendant in their city and their corner of the UK. This is clear not just from the plot of the show but from the lavish parlor in which Polly and her niece are chatting. Aunt Polly consoles her niece and explains what happened to Polly when her children were taken away. Polly also explains why it won’t happen to her niece: “they [the police] did it because they could, and because I was weak. They would never take your baby away from you. Do you know why? Because Tommy won’t let them. Because Tommy won’t let them walk all over us.”
That line hit me like a lightning bolt. I thought to myself, “that’s the kind of man I want to be.”
It was a pretty standard piece of characterization so I was surprised at how clear and deep the resonance of that line was, at how much I identified with it. I wanted to be a person to whom my family could turn for protection, and from whom my family could expect material comfort. But I was almost embarrassed at drawing this much inspiration from cartoonish TV gangsters. I had one friend who also noticed this contrast. She is one of the people who will tell me I’m a “good guy.” Whenever it comes up, she often comments on my love of gangster movies with things like, “They’re bad people–they’re killers and criminals. Why do you love gangster movies and give those guys a pass?”
I started this essay to recommend my favorite gangster movies, but in writing it I realized that in addition to being entertained, the reason I love gangster movies is because they make me a better man2. This is because there is a difference between being a good person and a good man, and nowhere is this distinction more clear and educational than in gangster movies. It’s taken me a long time to figure this out, so bear with me as we touch on Ancient Greek philosophy, story structure, and some contemporary movies to make this point.
Being a good man and being a good person are not the same thing. Everyone more or less knows what it means to be a good person. Certainly, we can argue about edge cases and specifics. We can disagree about whether some famous figures are good people, or some particulars of what it means to be a good person, but we all basically share the same broad-stroke definition: a good person is a person with honesty, integrity, loyalty etc.
A good man is a lot harder to define, and lately the question, "what’s a good man," has become loaded and contentious. But the essence of a good man is that he is equal parts protector and provider.
A good man protects by having clear ideas about who is responsible to and for, and keeping those people from harm’s way as best he can: whether that be physical, social, or psychological harm. Another way to put this is that a good man protects by understanding where the boundaries are between the people he’s responsible for and the rest of the world, and working to enforce that boundary.
A good man provides by making sure that life within the boundaries which he establishes and enforces is a desirable one. This usually means making things available like financial resources, counsel, diversion, and love. Basically, if as a protector a good man is creating and enforcing the boundary between the people he is responsible for and the outside world, as a provider a good man is responsible for making sure that people want to be inside that boundary.
Pretty much no protagonist in a gangster movie is a good person. Even those in the direst circumstances, with occasionally noble motives, are almost always driven by greed or power. They are likely to inflict terrible violence upon the people who cross them, even when it's not necessary. A gangster movie about a good guy who only beat and murdered people who deserved it frankly wouldn’t be a gangster movie, it would be a gangster-themed superhero movie. At most, they might be an anti-hero like The Punisher.
The protagonists in gangster movies are not superheroes, but “tragic heroes.” Aristotle was the first person who outlined what a tragic hero was and why people loved their stories. He said that they had a lot in common, such that all tragic heroes have one big flaw. He also said that all tragic heroes’ stories end in the same two parts. First comes the reveal, where — because of their flaw — the character has a big realization.Then comes the reversal, which entails the chaos and downfall that follow the reveal.
For it to be a tragic hero, the reveal needs to mean that the character realizes something about themselves. Then the reversal is the chaos and downfall that follows the reveal. The classic example is Oedipus Rex, who in his tireless search for the truth, accidentally discovers that he’s killed his father and married his mother.
Understanding the reveal and the reversal helps us answer the question, “OK, we’ve established that all gangsters are bad people, but are they all bad men?” And frankly, I think the answer is no. Sometimes the easiest time to see something is when you can see it in contrast to something else. This is one of the reasons we add salt to everything–nothing tastes like salt, so in the right quantity, salt can make anything “taste more like itself.”
Let’s look at four movies. (Blanket spoiler alert–I am talking about the climaxes of all these movies.) To look at both sides of this, I’m going to pick one extremely popular movie (for mainstream American audiences), and one deeper cut.
Most protagonists in gangster movies think themselves to be good men. They rationalize what they do by thinking that they are protecting their loved ones, but what’s instructive is that the implicit message is one of hypocrisy. These men say that they’re doing things to protect their family and be providers. It is educational to see when there is a protagonist who thinks he is a good man, but is not.
The canonical example is Michael Corleone in The Godfather. He reluctantly joins the family business–the mafia–only to eventually become the Don, the head of the family. He thinks of himself as protector and provider, insofar as he couches everything in terms of “family.” However, he is a terrible provider, in that nobody wants anything to do with living inside the boundaries he ruthlessly enforces. His wife hates him, his sister becomes an alcoholic, and his brother Fredo eventually betrays him. This reversal is slow over the course of the films but the reveal of how dire the circumstances are comes in Godfather Pt II, when Michael discovers that it was his brother who betrayed him. And the downfall is that he is forced to order the murder of Fredo, his only living brother.
In the second (deep cut) example, Sardar Khan is a second-generation thug in a small mining town in India in Gangs of Wasseypur. His father was murdered by the local tycoon, Ramadhir Singh, and so Sardar Khan dedicates his life to revenge, building an entire criminal enterprise around his maniacal drive to kill Singh. This may not seem like being a protector, but revenge (or vendetta), is a crucial part of enforcing boundaries. It is a contract that says, if you are under my protection, I will repay any violence done to you with violence regardless of whether you can witness it or not. However, Singh ends up outliving Khan because Khan is a bad provider. He is a megalomaniacal adulterer and criminal. The same way Khan’s revenge is a result of his father’s death, Khan’s own reveal and reversal are bundled in one in his own death–where he reaps what he has sown as the head of his criminal enterprise, family in shambles, never having exacted revenge upon his rival.
I would argue that both Michael Corleone and Sardar Khan are not only bad people but bad men. Even though they think of themselves as protectors, what they really are is singularly-focused megalomaniacs, intent on accruing power and exercising it. The only boundary they effectively enforce is that around their pursuit of power. And they do not provide a life to anyone within their circle that is worth living.
Contrasting this would be (the protagonist named) Amsterdam in Gangs of New York and Malik in A Prophet. What’s interesting is both of these characters have reveals, but their reversals are less obvious, and arguably don’t exist.
In Gangs of New York, Amsterdam is the son of local Irish gang leader Priest Vallon, and is sent away to a home for troubled boys when Priest is killed. He returns to his old neighborhood at eighteen years old, unknown to everyone there. He eventually falls in with the man who killed his father, Bill the Butcher.
Bill the Butcher doesn’t know who Amsterdam is, and takes him on as a sort of protege. In the reveal, Amsterdam realizes that he needs to avenge his father and kill Bill, but fails. He then leaves Bill’s gang and leans more into helping the Irish immigrants by starting up their old gang, the Dead Rabbits. As a result, the Irish immigrants in the neighborhood are safer and more prosperous than in almost two decades, and are able to meet Bill the Butcher’s gang on equal footing for the climactic battle of the film.
Malik’s trajectory is similar in A Prophet. Malik, a nineteen-year-old Mahgrebi living in Paris, is sent to prison where he aligns with the Corsican faction inside the prison, rather than the faction made up of his own Mahgrebi people. Malik ends up being a protege of one of the Corsican gangleaders, but over the course of the movie, the reveal comes in the form of his understanding who he is and which people value him more (the Mahgrebis). In the end, he betrays the Corsicans and builds his own powerful gang of Mahgrebis, becoming the leader of them, and helping them to establish dominance and secure privileges in the prison and outside.
Don’t get it twisted, Amsterdam and Malik are both greedy, power-hungry murderers. They are not good people. But to the people who rely on them, they are good men. They rigidly and violently enforce boundaries and protect their people, and they make life better for all the people inside those boundaries. This is as opposed to Khan and Corleone, who kill and murder enemies, but the life of everyone around them deteriorates.
There is an obvious low-definition lesson to these movies, which is: don’t join any gangs and don’t murder people. It’s pretty easy to watch these movies and see how the protagonists are bad people, and to simply avoid doing those things. However, in a roundabout way, seeing them try to be good men even as they are bad people is very instructive. It's analogous to someone doing an impression of me, revealing my most prominent characteristics. Seeing these larger-than-life characters who are obviously bad people try to be good men holds up a mirror to me, where I can see all the ways that I can be a better person and better man.
You can watch the full scene between Polly and her niece here on Facebook.
Generally, I think this is applicable for most people, but I have couched it in my experience of being a man.
Nice one, Charlie, as always. I feel like I haven’t seen enough movies. Would love to hear your thoughts on how a good man relates to being a good father. Feels integral. I once was asked in a job interview for the title I was most proud of and I said “Papa”. Didn’t get the job but probably a mismatch anyway.
Such an awesome observation here, Charlie, and now I’m absolutely going to rewatch a Peaky Blinders this weekend.