Rewriting History

Many GW students know history professor Tyler Anbinder from their Intro to American History class. Others know Anbinder from visiting him during his office hours for their class about the Civil War and Reconstruction. But what many students may not know is that Anbinder’s name is listed along with the names Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day Lewis in the credits for the movie Gangs of New York.

While Gangs of New York was in pre-production three years ago, director Martin Scorsese invited Anbinder to go over the movie’s screenplay in New York. Scorsese asked Anbinder to read the screenplay because the director was interested in making the movie historically accurate. However, sometimes Scorsese’s creativity overruled history.

“What he said to me is ‘I am not making a documentary, I am making a drama,'” Anbinder said, recalling his conversation with Scorsese. “You can’t succeed in telling a dramatic story, a film, if you worry about every single historic detail.”

Gangs of New York depicts immigrant life in New York City’s infamous Five Points neighborhood and includes the politics of Tammany Hall and the 1863 Draft Riots. It tells the story of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young man set on avenging his father’s death by the hands Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis).

Anbinder, who wrote the book “Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum,” described the film as “full of literary license.” He said the movie succeeded in capturing the overall theme of the Irish immigrants’ ability to overcome prejudice and discrimination in order to gain their rights while living in America.

“The specific details in which (Scorsese) depicts (the theme) are often inaccurate,” Anbinder said. “But what one fears is that these images, because they are visual and so memorable and stick in people’s minds, it will be impossible for them to remember that there were no ships firing in the harbor during the draft riots and no rivers of blood running through the city. Those are the kinds of things that are going to be hard for people to delete from their memory.”

Anbinder cited the scene in which the Irish immigrants arrive in New York City as an example where the visuals win over history. In the movie, the immigrants were made citizens right off the boat, the men then enlisted into the Union Army and coffins of Civil War casualties lined the docks. The scene was a stark visual of the struggles of living in a new country divided by war.

Anbinder said that and other historical inaccuracies were included in the movie to provoke dramatic effect. While it was true that many Irish immigrants became U.S. citizens and many of the men enlisted in the Union Army, it did not happen so suddenly as depicted in the movie.

Anbinder said his Civil War history class this semester will focus more on the draft riots to help students distinguish fiction from reality.

Anbinder’s research about Five Points examines the cultural impact of immigrant life in the neighborhood. He said his interests are in the roots of how America was made – how it became a multi-ethnic nation.

“People are more interested in cultural history now than they were 20 or 30 years ago,” Anbinder said “People are more interested in immigration history than they used to be.”

Five Points, a small section in lower Manhattan, was home to numerous Irish, Italian and other European immigrants who lived in overcrowded tenement buildings. The area was fraught with extreme poverty during the mid-1800s.

Anbinder said Five Points was a place of “contesting cultures,” where people of different ethnicities lived together and looked for their place in America. Tap dance was born in this diverse population of Irish, Italian and blacks. The popularity of tap dance in Five Points spread throughout New York City and then to the rest of the country, where it flourished in dance halls, vaudeville and on Broadway, Anbinder said.

The multi-ethnic culture of Five Points led to the religious, social and political conflicts that dominate Gangs of New York. The poverty of the Five Points slums led to one of the nation’s first steps toward urban renewal in the late 19th century. Today, Five Points is in the same area of New York City as Chinatown and many government buildings.

Anbinder noted the conditions of Five Points led to the modern way we look at poverty and help the poor.

“It was in Five Points where Americans first accepted the idea that immigrants had to be given not merely economic opportunity but equality with native-born Americans,” Anbinder said. “There is a great scene in the movie where Leonardo DiCaprio says ‘we’re not just going to vote for you anymore without getting something in return. We want a sheriff.'”

In the movie, the people of Five Points elected a sheriff and battled against the poverty and struggles of immigrant life to prove that America was, indeed, born in the streets.

Through his research, however, Anbinder was able to look past the poverty of Five Points and into the lives of the people who made their home there.

“I was able to look to which extent did the American dream became a reality,” he said upon reviewing many detailed bank accounts from the Immigrants Savings Bank.

Anbinder’s research is a continuing journey, much like that of American history. While he is not sure what he will pursue next, it will most likely be in the field of 19th-century history. Perhaps Scorsese will need some more fact checking assistance?

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