Perception of Gangs through film


Since the invention of film, movie makers have always found gangs to be a worthy topic. No matter how despicable and destructive gangs may be, they have certain qualities that are undeniably fascinating. As James Clapp puts it “They present irresistible dramatic elements.” The dynamics of their hierarchys, and the psychology driving gang members is very interesting and leaves lots of room to explore through film. Gang life will always be portrayed in film, and as viewers we compose much of what we know about gangs from these movies. However, the sole reason to make a movie is not to educate people about gangs. This billion dollar industry revolves around pulling people in through a heart warming story, a gruesome battle, or by whatever means thay can imagine. Each movie will paint gang life in a differnt shade, and from these scraps we slowly glean a concept of what a gang is to each of us. How much stock do we put into these stories we see though? Do we see them as a reality and forget that they are fiction?

In the HBO series The Sopranos, the mafia is depicted through the eyes of Tony Soprano, but we do not see simply modern mob life, but Tony’s struggle through his life. As Ingred Fields states it “The Sopranos dramatizes the struggle of the middle-class American family as mob life. The Soprano clan's vitality lies not in the impermeability of its mob organization so much as in its sense of entitlement to social status and financial success. David Chase's series sets out in broad strokes a complex portrait of a mob fully entrenched in American capitalism.” This show is made to be relatable and interesting to viewers, so it takes mob life and embeds it into life for the an average Joe. This show does not pretend to be based on fact, but the fact of the matter is that if our only exposure to the mob is through this series, our concept of the mob is still rooted in this show.

The biker gang genre first cropped up during the fifties to draw a younger market to the movie theatre. Hollywood busted out a stream of low budget films that both preached to kids warning them of the many dangers that lay in store for them if they wandered off the beaten track, while simultaneously alluring them with the nerves of steel these rebels without a cause exhibited. In 1954,The Wild One, a movie dramaticizing an actual conflict, riveted America laying the foundation for biker movies for the next decade. The movie depicts a biker gang composed of former military struggling to conform to the monotony of their former lives who invade a small town and wreak havoc. Although this movie was originally intended to manifest potinetial consequences of capitalism, “the liberal moralizing of “the Wild One” was watered down” by Columbia studios. The end result was a nationwide fascination with this mysterious biker gangs and demand for more illustration of them (Osgerby 99). As Xan Brooks, editor of The Guardian Newspaper puts it “What message do we take from The Wild One (1954)? That biker gangs are bad, or that Marlon Brando looks cool in his leathers?”(Brooks) Brooks argues that these movies claim to scare people away with their shock value, but really absorbs them, and urges them on to find out more. Even today people still appreciate the thrill this movie stirred up. The Black Rebel Motorcycle Gang, a band formed in the late 90s thought this movie left a sufficient legacy to name their band after the biker gang featured in it.


As biker gangs siezed interest across America in the late fifties, the market for a darker biker gang movies began to blossom. By the mid sixties, American optimism was drained, replaced with axiety and building tension. After some angels were arrested for gang rape of two teenagers, hells angels embodied many americans’ worst fears. Hunter S Thompson, who rode with hells angels for over a year while writing about them, described this time as “an era of extreme reality. I miss the smell of tear gas. I miss the fear of getting beaten"(The independent). Between the Vietnam war, civil rights movements, and a struggling economy, America was on edge, and the Hollywood exploited this through biker movies. Wild Angels, one such movie, originally called The Fallen Angels, was shot in just over two weeks with a fairly low budget of 360,000 dollars (Osgerby 101). The film paints the world “as a closed empty place” (Roger Corman 8) as seen in many other Corman (the director) movies in which the biker gang revels in their isolation. At the time, treatment given to Hells Angels was mixed. Some saw them as romantic outlaws while others saw them as twisted and sick. Corman shed an ambivalent light onto them. While he didn’t condone their brutal savage behavior, he also infused characters with somewhat noble behavior and conveyed them dealing with very normal human dilemmas. On perception of gang culture as a whole, movies like this one, strike fear in people about gangs by depicting them in such a brutal way, but also serves as a reminder that they are people and not monsters.The scene below depicts the final scene from Wild Angels where, Blues, the leader makes a speech proclaiming what they want and what they are living for. By the end of the speech, as a destructive party in the chapel instigates around him, he finds his demands to be hollow. The gang members in this movie are caught up in the dynamics of the gang and stuck in this cycle. As a whole they are terrorizing and brutal, but when examined individually, their human nature shines through and pity is inspired for their situation. Although this movie clearly does not romanticize the gang, it individualizes the people entraped in it and offers the public an understanding of gangs instead of simply a fear of them.The motorcycle movie craze began to wind down at the end of the sixties when drive in movies were in decline.Although the disheveled gangs depicted through these films contrast from the organized machines that exist today, these movies serve in the same way that movies do today. They gave people a reference point from which to base their perception of gangs off of.

Film Noir is film movement that struck first in the forties and fifties. It primarily discussed veterans struggling returning to life at home after the war. It showed a more realistic perspective on the many struggling people who society put off the radar because these films discussed the problems they were facing that no one really wanted to look at. It offered a pretty negative message illustrating people who started in a low place and end possibly alittle lower. It was a stark contrast with the many of the films through the roaring twenties that romanticized people defeating all odds to make something of themselves. After a time, this trend died out. In the seventies, a neo noir comeback came into effect. These movies featured a lot of gangs. As crime began to run rampid through the streets and the cities were filled with grime, the movies reflected that, illustrating out of control gang fights in the middle of time square. A example of a neo noir film of this time period is taxi driver. In this film, a deranged man finds himself disgusted with the state of life around him. He single handedly tries to take down a gang trying to free a prostitute trapped inside of it. This film displays gang crime as not even effected by the cops like its too big of a problem for the police to even fathom or factor into. These films shed a light of gang life as a juggernaut that even the people with in its system are victim to. They fuel the fire and raise people's anxieties. These movies do not depict people as evil, but they display a system that everyone is trapped in. It does not raise hopes or promote optimism. They do not inspire people to get up and initiate change. They show gang life as a bleak and hopeless situation.

Every movie will portay gangs in a different light. From observing how movies were made at differnt time periods, how the gangs in them were depicted, and how these movies changed the perception of those who saw them, we understand media and their depiction of gangs today. We can see beyond the scare tatics or call to duties that they may include to make an entertaining story. We can take the story as a spark to ignite us into discovering the real story behind the media's images and not naively assuming that this movie must be taken straight out of real life.

Works Cited

"Marlon Brando riding" 200

"Siantra's speech"2010

Xan Brooks. "Film & Music: From bong-smoking delinquents to renegade skaters Xan Brooks charts the history of the teen menace film. " The Guardian 6 Nov. 2009, ProQuest Newsstand, ProQuest. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.

SEAN DALY. "BLACK REBEL MOTORCYCLE CLUB :[STATE Edition]. " St. Petersburg Times 6 May 2007, ProQuest Newsstand, ProQuest. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.

Osgerby, Bill. "SLEAZY RIDERS." Journal of Popular Film & Television 31.3 (2003): 98-108. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.

WRIGHT, GREG. "The Literary, Political, and Legal Strategies of Oscar Zeta Acosta and Hunter S. Thompson: Intertextuality, Ambiguity, and (Naturally) Fear and Loathing." Journal of Popular Culture 43.3 (2010): 622-643. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.

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Johnson, David R. "Homegrown gangsters: Urban crime in the 20th-century West." Journal of the West 34.3 (1995): 49-58. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.

CLAPP, JAMES A. "Growing Up Urban: The City, the Cinema, and American Youth." Journal of Popular Culture 40.4 (2007): 601-629. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.

Gunckel, Colin. "Gangs Gone Wild": Low-Budget Gang Documentaries and the Aesthetics of Exploitation." Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film & Television 60 (2007): 37-46. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.

Macek, S. "The Political Uses of the Neo-Noir City: Ideology, Genre, and the Urban Landscape in 8mm and Strange Days." Journal of American & Comparative Cultures 25.3/4 (2002): 375-383. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.