“You know who goes to jail? Nigger stick-up men, that’s who. You know why they get caught? Because they fall asleep in the getaway car, Karen.”
“That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this. No one gives it to you. You have to take it.”
–The Departed, 2006
“Sonny: Niggers havin’ a real good time up in Harlem…
Carlo Rizzi: I knew that was going to happen as soon as they tasted the big money.”
–The Godfather, 1972
I love crime movies, man. I’m sure that’s obvious if you’ve ever read this site before, but it bears restating: I luv them. Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy was always around the house when I was growing up. For some reason, my grandparents weren’t down with Scarface, but they could watch The Godfather all day. (My grandfather had a tape of New Jack City, though.) When the DVD boxed set came out a few years back, the first thing I did was order it so that they could replace those awful double-VHS sets. I’d end up looking at about a foot of The Godfather every time I went to find a movie to watch.
Now, the thing about crime movies that I hate the most is the nigger speech. It’s not in every crime flick, but it’s in enough of them (and most of the major ones) that it’s something I took notice of and started rolling my eyes over. The gist, if you somehow aren’t familiar with the nigger speech, is that a bunch of guys will sit around a table, maybe at a meeting or maybe at dinner, and talk about how they don’t do _____ like the niggers do. Usually it’s dealing heroin, but sometimes it’s petty crime or sticking people up on the street. It pitches the guys giving the speech as classy criminals, as opposed to the inelegant savagery of the negro peoples when it comes to crime.
It’s a cheap, lazy shorthand version of characterization. I get the reasoning behind it. It actually makes a lot of sense. You want to set your criminals apart from other criminals, and honestly, stick-ups and dealing drugs is probably the primary narrative in the media when it comes to black crime. The dominant image for black crime is basically street gangs and crackheads, right?
But man… black people have had some amazing criminal enterprises. The Black Mafia ran wild over Philadelphia, the Black Mafia Family as a concept is begging for a fictionalized movie (You know that bit from Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves where Chubb Rock is like “I do prostitution, drugs, guns, and rap management?” I feel like that’s the secret origin of BMF), and there’s also The Council (recently immortalized in American Gangster), Nicky Barnes, Freeway Ricky Ross, Bumpy Johnson, and plenty more. If you’re looking for amoral predators willing to do anything to make a buck, there’s plenty you can pull from.
I get the nigger speech, but I don’t like it much. I’ve seen it too often, and I feel like it’s at the point where it’s only in these movies because it was in the other movies, and now the nigger speech is an accepted part of crime movie culture (for lack of a better phrase). The nigger speech puts forth a fake idea, and I don’t know that any movie has actually factored that into the speech as some type of dramatic irony. It’s never a rebuke. It’s just a statement: Italians (or whoever) do crime like this, black people do crime like this. It’s an argument of sophistication vs unsophistication, or honor among thieves vs dishonorable actions, more than anything else. It’s character- and world-building stuff, and it actually works pretty well, assuming the writing’s above a certain quality.
But I still don’t like the nigger speech. It’s not even the racism that bothers me. It’s not the historical inaccuracy, either. Neither of those is really what gets under my skin. (Well, maybe the racism, but c’mon. I live in America. I know how to roll with the punches/racism.) It’s really about the lack of originality for me. It’s like how every movie has to have a scene where the good guy and bad guy points their guns at one another and WHOOPS the guns are empty. We’ve seen that scene. We know how it ends. We’ve heard the nigger speech, and we don’t care. At this point, throwing the nigger speech into your movie just makes you a biter at best.
I missed out on Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John’s King of New York (released in 1990) the first time around. I’m not sure how or why. I certainly knew of it — I’m a big fan of the black Frank White and the movie was sampled in Tupac’s “Death Around the Corner”, which was my favorite Tupac song for years, so some things you absorb without even realizing — but I hadn’t watched it until last year, when either Sean Witzke or Tucker Stone urged me to do so.
I loved it. Christopher Walken was great. Laurence Fishburne was great. Giancarlo Esposito, Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Steve Buscemi, everybody was good. Toward the end, there’s a bit where a guy goes “Hey. You.” and what follows is one of the coldest killings ever put to film.
But partway through the movie, there’s this exchange:
“Joey Dalesio: I’ve got a message from Frank White. He wants to sit down, he wants to talk.
Arty Clay: You tell him I don’t talk to nigger lovers.
Joey Dalesio: Well, he says he’s got things on his mind that he wants to discuss with you, and he wants to know where and he wants to know when.
Arty Clay: You tell him in fucking Hell, that’s where. He’s gonna wish his lawyer left him fucking those Sambos in the joint when I get through with him.”
I started to roll my eyes, because man, this is biz as usual, no matter how good the movie is. But, Frank runs with black dudes. He’s their brother. So, a little later, he goes to visit Arty. I can’t embed the youtube, but there’s an official excerpt here. And I loved this scene. I can’t even tell you. It instantly made up for the nigger speech in this flick and dozens of others. It’s this super hardbody statement of intent for Frank White and one of the coolest scenes out. It’s Batman delivering his ultimatum to the crooks in Miller and Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One times a billion. “You guys got fat while everybody starved on the street. Now it’s my turn.”
King of New York upset a lot of my expectations on top of just being a dope movie. The violence, the plot, the dialogue, the acting, all of it was top notch. Getting a bit of blatant revenge on the nigger speech was just icing on the cake. When you add in “Hey. You.” from the end, you’ve got one of my favorite crime flicks.
(You know what sucks? I can’t embed a trailer of this movie from youtube being LionsGate doesn’t understand how the internet works. Check the trailer here, though.)