Does Black Mass tell the whole story?

September 24, 2015

Joe Allen reviews a new movie about Boston crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger.

JOHNNY DEPP hasn't made a good film in a long time. The Pirates of the Caribbean series ran out of gas years ago, Mortdecai looked awful, and his campy interpretation of Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows and Tonto in The Lone Ranger were cringeworthy or worse. So it's a welcome change to have him back in good form playing Irish-American mobster James "Whitey" Bulger in Scott Cooper's Black Mass.

Based on the book of the same title by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, the film chronicles the rise of "Whitey"--a nickname he got because of his shiny blonde hair--Bulger from a low-level gangster to the kingpin of the Boston underworld from the 1970s until his flight from prosecution in the mid-1990s.

Whitey's rise to criminal prominence was facilitated by FBI Special Agent John Connolly along with many other agents in the FBI's Boston office and the federal prosecutors of the Department of Justice, who recruited him as an informer in their ultimately successful war against the Italian-American Mafia.

Johnny Depp stars as James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass
Johnny Depp stars as James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass

With Whitey's crucial help, the FBI ably destroyed his major rival, the North End-based Angiulo crime family that dominated organized crime in the greater Boston area. This cleared the way for Bolger and his Winter Hill gang to eventually dominate bookmaking, extortion, illicit drug dealing and gunrunning. Not content with local success, Whitey also began to expand his operations to Florida, and he ordered the assassination of an unwanted and unknowing business partner in Oklahoma.

Whitey Bulger went from being a small tumor to a deadly cancer on the lives of many Bostonians, killing at least 20 people in the process.

BLACK MASS begins with the return of John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to his native Boston. The swaggering Connolly wants to climb the FBI career faster after successful cases in other cities. An opportunity for greater advancement presents itself to Connolly with a directive from the FBI national office to wage war on the Mafia.

The FBI had an image problem in the mid-1970s because of extensive congressional investigations into its own wide-ranging criminal behavior, including its counter-intelligence operations (COINTELPRO) against the civil rights and Black Power movements and the illegal surveillance of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens.

Review: Movies

Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper, starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon.

What better way to clean up their tarnished image than by returning to the crime-fighting reputation that long-serving FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover created for them in the 1930s, and well maintained through the 1960s by silly television shows like The FBI Story?

Connolly knew Whitey Bulger from his childhood, when their families lived together South Boston's overwhelmingly Irish Catholic Old Harbor Housing Project, where Whitey had an outsized reputation among kids in the projects. Why not bring down the Mafia using someone like Whitey, who had the inside information that could destroy the Angiulos, Connolly cleverly thought.

He first approaches Whitey's younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a state representative from South Boston and president of the Massachusetts state Senate, the most powerful political figure in the state government after the governor. Billy Bulger held court in the majestic, golden-domed state house that sits perched on Beacon Hill, lording over the entire city. Billy slyly declined Connolly's approach, pushing his business card away, sensing this might be a trap and telling him, "Jimmy's business is Jimmy's business."

Connolly decides that his only option is to meet with Whitey alone. He meets with a skeptical Bulger in the middle of the night near the ocean and pitches his deal. Whitey eventually accepts, seeing a grand opportunity, but also sizing up his FBI handler as something of a sucker. Whitey gives him just enough information on the Angiulos to destroy them. Connolly and his supervisor John Morris (David Harbour) are proclaimed heroes.

NOW IT'S Whitey's turn at the big time, and he seizes it with gusto. He and his Winter Hill associates, Kevin Weeks and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, are all on the gravy train. But success comes at the expense of murdering anyone who threatens Whitney's burgeoning empire, including longtime lovers, daughters, innocent bystanders, business rivals and, of course, informers--the much-hated "rats."

Many of Whitey's victims were murdered because of tips given to him by John Connolly. They switched positions, with Connolly informing for Bulger and being handsomely paid for it. It's strongly suggested by the film that Whitey stopped informing early on and a paid-off Connolly filled in his rather slim informant file with information from other sources.

With the exceptions of his young son's and mother's deaths, Whitey doesn't seem to ever lose a night's sleep over the mounting body count. He loved his job and was a hands-on administrator, fit and trim and well-dressed into his 50s, while his closest associates became increasingly bloated, haggard and bleary-eyed. Whitey was never arrested--he didn't even get a parking ticket during his bloody reign.

Depp dons heavy makeup to play Whitey, including piercing blue contact lenses that give him an almost vampirish or reptilian look to great effect. In one of the film's eeriest scenes, Whitey is invited to socialize with Connolly at his home, but his wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) wants nothing to do with it, and retires to her bedroom. Whitey, sensing potential trouble, wants to check up on her and caresses her like a lizard would his prey. You can't help but squirm in your seat.

Eventually, the walls start to close in on Whitey and Connolly because of personnel changes among Boston's federal prosecutors and a growing outcry over Whitey's lawlessness. Bulger fled Boston in 1994, and was captured in 2011. Black Mass doesn't cover his controversial trial that followed, but simply notes that he was convicted of 11 murders and racketeering and was sentenced to two life terms plus five years. Connolly was also convicted for murder. Both will die in prison.

BLACK MASS is not, by any means, a groundbreaking film, but it's well put together and strikes an appropriately somber and ominous tone, broken by a few nods to Martin Scorsese. It reminded me a lot of the 1973 film The Friends of Eddie Coyle, starring Robert Mitchum and based on the George V. Higgins' novel. Several critical reviews in the New York Times and Truthdig baffled me; I wondered if we had watched the same film.

It came in second at the box office during its opening weekend with the largest turnouts in the Northeast and in Boston-area theaters. It's a story that stills resonates because it cut so deep into many people's lives. There is, however, one large gaping hole in the film that can't be ignored.

This is a film that begins in Boston in the 1970s, and yet there is no reference to the racist insurgency by the residents of South Boston--where the film is primarily set--against busing to desegregate the public schools. Scenes were shot in the making of the film, and they were even included in a trailer, but it appears that a decision was made to drop them from the final cut.

I think this is was a big mistake. Martin Scorsese's The Departed (which incorporated some of Bulger's story into it) included a reference to the racist opposition in the opening scene. How can you make a film about Boston--specifically, South Boston in this era--without it?

There is no doubt that the Bulger's murderous rise to power in the criminal underworld was primarily facilitated by his alliance with the Boston FBI, but the racist insurgency also contributed to it. The South Boston criminal world, for example, played a grotesque role in the violence against Black children and any "outsiders" during this time. It's long been rumored that the mob provided muscle for some of Boston's worst racist political demagogues, including John Kerrigan and Louise Day Hicks.

Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, a painful memoir of this era from the perspective of a South Boston white working-class youth whose family was destroyed by poverty and drug addiction, wrote on the 13th anniversary of court-ordered desegregation:

That us-against-them enmity that they [anti-busing politicians] and other leaders inspired from on high, which may have felt justified and righteous to some at the time, benefited James "Whitey" Bulger more than anyone. To thrive, Bulger needed Southie united in a closed, paranoid and conspiratorial culture of silence. And for many of our poorest families, that ultimately worked toward our own destruction.

Whitey was notoriously opposed to the busing plan, sponsoring militant violence against the pro-busing Boston Globe and the Kennedy homestead in Brookline. But no one made out from busing like Whitey did. He rose to ascendance precisely during the chaos of busing. Just like we jumped into the arms of career politicians, so many of our poorest were ready to jump into the arms of anyone promising protection from the enemy "out there"--some of those enemies fabricated, some of them real.

As Brian Kelly, a U.S. historian at Queens University in Belfast, told me:

Bulger made his name--or was able to operate for so long--in part because he cultivated an image as protector of the neighborhood. Future city councilman Jimmy Kelly, the South Boston Marshals, a racist vigilante gang, did the same, exploiting the deep racism that predated desegregation, and used their role as "protectors" of the neighborhood to rally anti-busing forces.

If all of this were included in Black Mass, it would have been a richer, deeper--and even more disturbing--film.

Further Reading

From the archives