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The Godfather and America

May 21, 2010 7 comments

“I believe in America.  America has made my fortune

So begins one of the greatest films ever made, and my personal favorite, The Godfather.  There are so many things to love about this movie.  Puzo’s writing.  Coppola’s interpretation.  The sage counsel: “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”  I could go on and on.  Nevertheless, if I had to choose the one thing that makes The Godfather a timeless classic, it would be how it dramatizes the double standards that exist within such cherished American institutions as the criminal justice system, politics, news and entertainment media, and organized religion.

American Ideal:  The criminal justice system entitles all citizens to equal protection under the law regardless of race, creed or color.

“I went to the police, like a good American.  These two boys were brought to trial.  The judge sentenced them to three years in prison – suspended sentence.  Suspended sentence!  They went free that very day!  I stood in the courtroom like a fool.  And those two bastards, they smiled at me.  Then I said to my wife, for justice, we must go to Don Corleone.” –Amerigo Bonasera

Protection under the law is neither equal nor color-blind.  According to a recent report by the Bureau of Justice, the rate of imprisonment for black males is 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males.  Contributing factors include the ability to pay for high quality legal services and discrimination in prosecution, the rendering of verdicts and sentencing based on race and class.  Unfortunately, the ironically named Amerigo Bonasera learned this lesson the hard way.  Despite assimilating and defining himself as a “good American,” in the eyes of the court, Amerigo’s rights and personhood as an Italian immigrant and those of his daughter were deemed less valuable than those of the two white teens who brutalized her.

American Ideal:  The police serve and protect law-abiding citizens and enforce the law.

“What’s the Turk paying you to set up my father, Captain?” – Michael Corleone

Indeed, there are corrupt police officers who abuse the law by participating in illegal activities for financial gain.  There are also police officers who sometimes perceive criminality where there is none based on their limited perceptions and prejudices.  As a result, law-abiding citizens have been assaulted and even killed.  Unfortunately, there appears to be no end in sight to this injustice.  Recently a Texas jury ruled in favor of a white police officer who shot an unarmed black man on New Year’s Eve, in front of his parents, after mistakenly assuming the man was driving a stolen car.  Although Michael was a war hero and still a law-abiding citizen at this point in the story, the above inquiry was answered with a jaw-breaking punch and he was almost arrested.  In this instance, “serve and protect” was reserved for mafia-connected drug dealers.

American Ideal:  As elected representatives, politicians serve in the best interest of those they represent.

Michael: “My father’s no different than any other powerful man, any man who’s responsible for other people.  Like a senator or a president.”
Kay: “You know how naive you sound?”
Michael: “Why?”
Kay: “Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.”
Michael: “Oh, who’s being naïve, Kay?”

Some politicians put the interests of sponsors, lobbyists and corporations ahead of the needs of their constituents.  These politicians set their priorities based on the financial benefits, be it from industries, such as oil and health care, or deep-pocketed individuals.  Vito had quite a few politicians and judges on his payroll, which was evident by the gifts sent to his daughter on her wedding day and his assignment for the “Jew congressman in another district.”

American Ideal:  The news is presented truthfully and objectively.

“That’s a terrific story.  And we have newspaper people on the payroll, don’t we, Tom? And they might like a story like that.” – Michael Corleone 

The integrity of the news is often compromised by subjective reporting, propaganda and personal agendas.  Public opinion is frequently manipulated by the suppression of information and contrasting viewpoints.  The Corleone Family, through their contacts, reframed the news coverage of the police captain’s murder to shift the public’s attention from the policeman’s murder to police corruption.

American Ideal:  Hollywood movies are harmless entertainment with fair and realistic portrayals of diverse characters.

Jack Woltz: “Johnny Fontane will never get that movie!  I don’t care how many dago guinea wop greaseball goombahs come out of the woodwork!”
Tom Hagen: “I’m German-Irish.”
Jack Woltz: “Well, let me tell you something, my kraut-mick friend…”

Movies made within the Hollywood film industry sometimes reflect narrow worldviews.  This often results in racial stereotypes and perpetuates a cycle of intolerance that is very harmful.  The Jack Woltz character offers insights regarding this – from the racial slurs in his interaction with Tom to his life at home where his black servants are in the background, barely noticeable and insignificant.  One could reasonably conclude that black characters and possibly other minorities in Woltz’s movies would be one-dimensional and insignificant to the plot.  Ironically, Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor Academy Award for The Godfather to protest the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry.  Brando stirred up more controversy in 1996 when he described Hollywood as being “run by Jews.”  He went on to accuse those in charge of disparaging other racial groups.  After much criticism and backlash, Brando apologized for his comments.

American Ideal:  Those who observe and practice religious rituals lead godly lives.

“But I’m gonna wait – after the baptism.  I’ve decided to be godfather to Connie’s baby.  And then I’ll meet with Don Barzini and Tattaglia – all of the heads of the Five Families.” – Michael Corleone

Participating in religious rituals and attending church does not automatically indicate godliness and/or morality.  Members of the clergy have been accused of stealing money, committing adultery, substance abuse, sexual molestation and domestic violence.  For Michael, agreeing to be godfather for his nephew was not done out of love for his sister, it was a business transaction.  Michael used his nephew’s baptism as a cover while the heads of the five families were murdered per his orders.  This scene delivers one of the most effective montages in cinema history and establishes Michael’s cold-bloodedness, his point of no return.  [A more in-depth analysis of Michael Corleone and his transformation from college-educated war hero to ruthless mafia don will follow at a later date.]

In spite of its imperfections, I still believe in America.  I believe in the American ideals of freedom, truth and justice.  While it’s true that The Godfather sheds light on some of America’s flaws and hypocrisies, accepting reality is a step in the right direction towards eventually achieving those ideals.  Like Michael said to Vito, “We’ll get there…”  One day and one person at a time, that is.

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