King of New York: “Welcome back, Frank.”

April 12th, 2012 by | Tags: ,

“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.”
Goodfellas, 1990

“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.)

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20 comments to “King of New York: “Welcome back, Frank.””

  1. one line that’s always stuck with me from The Godfather is:

    “Keep the junk trade to the coloreds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”

    i can’t believe you’ve never seen king of new york, though!

  2. This all reminds me of that seen in “Ghost Dog” where the mob is sitting around crackin’ wise on rapper’s ridiculous names and then someone comes in and says “Hey Fat Angie, Sammy the Snake, and Joey Rags. Lets Go”.

  3. Reservoir Dogs uses that speech too. It really does come up a lot. Great article.

    Also, how’d you feel about American Gangster? I think it’s very underrated.

  4. Great article, as always. The thing that’s always struck me about these speeches/exchanges, though (and keep in mind, this is from a white guy, so I don’t have the same perspective), is that, in so many of these movies, race is such a HUGE motivator. In The Departed, it’s Irish pride and why don’t you respect me it’s because I’m Irish. In The Godfather, it’s I’m Italian and we had to do this because nobody was respecting Italians and so we made them respect us. Even in Goodfellas, it was all about this huge Italian pride, so much that Robert Deniro basically has to pretend to be Italian, even though he’s Jewish. And so, because they’re so insular and generally idiots, they end up being guilty of the same things everybody else is. So…just a thought.

  5. @Matt: That adds an interesting texture to the conversation, yeah. It also reflects real life, in a way. You’d think that people who have suffered oppression (which is basically everyone? Jews, blacks, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, and more besides) would be actively against oppression, but it leads to a bunker mentality where you have to protect yourself and your family/race first, and then everyone else later. Which makes sense, and can definitely be a good thing — the Black Panthers rose out of that sentiment — but it also leads to absurd situations like the complicated intersection of homosexuality, black Americans, and the black church. So I definitely get how real life people would come to that conclusion, and how that would be filtered into movies… but ugh man, it’s so tiresome. Or tiring. Frustrating. Something. It’s an ugly reminder of how complicated and stupid race relations really are.

    @LtKenFrankenstein: I liked that a whole bunch. I’m super partial to Denzel anyway, but that movie was dope. I bought the Blu-ray, saw it in the theater, everything. I dunno if my favorite part is the use of Across 110th Street or Frank Lucas buying his mom a house, though. Tough call.

    @RS David: Yes! I love that sort of conscious refutation, as long as it isn’t too overbearing.

    @ATOM HOTEP: I can’t believe I never saw it, either, man. Glad I got around to it, though.

  6. I like putting “Hoodlum” and “American Gangster” back-to-back. And now I’ve got to finally get around to watching “King of New York”…

  7. @RS David: Holy shit, I loved Ghost Dog.

    Another thing about King of New York is seeing Wesley Snipes and David Caruso, long before either of them completely fell apart. Remember when they were both pretty good actors? Seems like a lifetime ago.

  8. I saw Goodfellas for the first time in a long time a while back, and I had completely forgotten that Samuel L. Jackson was in that movie. Worse, he was the living embodiment of the “stupid nigger” trope you’re describing here – just a complete moron who gets blown away halfway through. It struck me as odd when I saw it because it just seemed so superfluous – the movie didn’t need to provide an example of the main characters being racist idiots, they were already bad enough. I’ve been scratching my head at that one ever since.

  9. Great article. One thing I disagree with, though, I always felt that that Deaparted line has Nicholson’s character talking about the civil rights movement, making the character look like even more of a *******. He disrespects an entire race because he feels like they should have started a war for what they “wanted” (were, really, entitled to). In his mentality, blood is the only answer. It brings up the race pride element Matt talked about, but from a different angle. He was the one gangster in the movie who didn’t seem to care about his people as a race any more than all the others. Though he creates that division of creed/race/nacionality/sexuality, he doesn’t seem to like his any more than the others. Or maybe my memory is off. Haven’t watched the movie in a bit. And, yes, he runs an all-white crew, so …

  10. You ever see True Romance? I liked Gary Oldman’s ridiculous pimp character as a subversion of this sort of cliche.

  11. @Orlando: it’s important to note that in that scene, they’re showing actual clips of the 1970s Boston busing riots. Boston had a lot of really fucked up open racism going on at the time.

  12. David, I think you completely miss the point of what it’s supposed to mean.

    It’s not showing that the criminals are “classier.” It’s showing that they’re 1) arrogant for BELIEVING they’re a classier kind of criminal, and 2) that they’re racist. It’s shorthand to paint them as scummier than they already are.

    That doesn’t make it any more or less a cliche, but I’m kind of shocked you couldn’t grasp the intent.

  13. Question: They act in a racist manner in these scenes, do they do this to highlight that these guys are bad? You said that they use it to show that they are a different type of criminal, but do they also say “These guys are racists, so they are bad”? Or do they treat it like it’s not a big deal? I don’t watch crime movies (think I saw Godfather when I was, maybe, six) so I am curious about the context.
    Also: You mentioned the lack of Black Mafia. It’s been awhile, so I may be misremembering, but I believe one of the Mob heads in The Dark Knight movie that hired the Joker was a Black Mafia Family leader. We didn’t really see a lot of him, but the others were family heads.

  14. @Orlando: I haven’t seen the Departed in years. I should dig that one up again. I’m sure I’ve got the DVD kicking around.

    @Greg: I saw it once when I briefly got hardcore into Tarantino, around when that Reservoir Dogs 10th anniversary DVD came out and they re-released all his stuff. Another one I’ve not seen in ages now.

    @Wackadoo: Well, no, I didn’t completely miss the point. The classy comment was referring to both what the comment is intended to reinforce in the movie universe and ours. In American culture, blacks don’t really do organized crime as we understand it, even though they have for decades. And yes, the arrogance is there, and the racism, too, but it rarely ever results in a comeuppance related to the arrogance or racism. Which leads me to think that the point isn’t so much the ugliness of their arrogance or racism as how they feel about other people on a very basic level. King of New York worked for me because it pitched the nigger speech as blatantly out of line, and the guy nearly immediately pays for it. I get what you’re saying, but I just disagree that that’s the intent of these scenes.

    @lascoden: Generally, it’s presented as not a big deal. “These guys are bad guys already, so what’s a lil racism gonna hurt?” more or less.

    I don’t think the mob heads in the Dark Knight were actual Black Mafia or Black Mafia Family (two different real-life groups, rather than descriptive names) so much as black mafia dudes.

  15. @david brothers: Thank you for the response. Did not know that those were specific group names, assumed it was similar to broader phrasing such as “Irish mob” or “Russian mafia.” Apologies, organized crime is not one of my strong suits.

  16. David, great post. just wanted to chime in as the token Italian guy around here. 😉

    I think Goodfellas is one of the best crime movies ever put to film, but nevertheless the emptiness of the Samuel L. Jackson character (“Stacks,” I think his name was?) bugged me a bit because it lives into that stereotype of the incompetent black criminal you’re outlining.

    That said, do you think part of that depiction in that movie specifically was a reflection of the times, ie: more blatant racism in the 60’s? In other words, is this more a generational thing? I mean, my grandpa was in that generation and is old school, from Italy, and doesn’t even recognize his own racism because it’s buried so deep… he about flipped his lid when I dated a black girl and could never articulate why when I tried to challenge him on it, though I always knew the underlying reason. (He’d just chalk it up to “we should stick to our own.”) Not excusing his behavior, but just suggesting maybe in Goodfellas it was a depiction of the times, not an accurate representation of society’s general belief today?

    Anyway, check out the semi-autobiogrpahical DeNiro flick “A Bronx Tale” for some good race relations stuff between the Italian and Black communities.

  17. “It rarely ever results in a comeuppance related to the arrogance or racism.”

    Almost all gangster movies “result” in the gangsters getting killed at the end by people they’ve pissed off. It’s all karmic in the context of the story.

    You may feel they deserve immediate and/or specific punishment for racist sentiment, but the movies typically aren’t about highlighting that aspect, just showing that these are bad guys who will eventually get their due. As I said before, using that language is just shorthand to make them out to be even “badder,” and it can definitely be lazy, but your desire for those specific lines to be addressed and given more significance is unnecessary in the contexts of those films.

  18. In other words, go ahead and call lazy dialogue “lazy dialogue,” but don’t take it so personally and demand it be addressed.

  19. @Wackadoo: I think you’re seeing outrage where there is at worst low-level annoyance, honestly, and I’m not demanding anything. All I did was say I don’t like one specific aspect of certain crime flicks, and that one movie I missed out on upended that aspect in a particularly enjoyable way.

  20. Personally, I find these Italian crime flicks truthful in their mentality towards black people. And to a certain extent the Irish-Americans, such as the film The Departed. I say Irish-Americans because Ireland seems to have no indifference to their large African population. As for the Italians and Southern Europeans in general, I find them far more racist and proudly open to their racist beliefs in general, say compare to Scandinavian, German, and French people. Even the English worldwide ( UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) are nowhere close to the open racism by Southern Europeans. All of these crime flicks and the Soprano’s clearly showed how Italians view blacks. That’s why I always hated these movies. And I could never understand why black people love these films or Italians in general. It always seems the least white you are, the more racist you are towards black people. It’s as if Southern Europeans, especially Italians, need to prove their whiteness by being racist towards blacks. Are Southern Europeans white? Of course, but their not Anglo-Saxsons, Northerners, or Scandinavians.