Go to any movie theater in America this fall, and you’ll be able to see Boston’s past—in all its gritty, bloody, damaging glory—laid bare across two screens. You might buy a ticket to Black Mass, a film about Whitey Bulger’s reign of terror. Or perhaps you’ve decided to see Spotlight, the story of The Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic church’s history of sexual abuse.
Those are just two of the most recent movies in a spate of films made over the past three decades that have portrayed Boston as a tough town: The Departed, Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Mystic River, The Boondock Saints, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, even Good Will Hunting—they all focus on Boston neighborhoods’ relationships with crime and the struggle of the working class to survive on the streets.
Other cities get to play more than one character on screen. Take New York: It’s portrayed in films not only as the setting for crime dramas (Goodfellas, Taxi Driver), but also as the backdrop for romantic comedies (You’ve Got Mail, basically any other movie about love ever made) and movies about extreme wealth and privilege (Wolf of Wall Street, Wall Street, Wall Street II, anything else with Wall Street in the title).
But with the exception of more lighthearted films that take place at Harvard (Love Story, Legally Blonde), Boston is almost always the place where people get murdered, accents are heavy and Rs are light, and pride comes before the fall.
“In some ways, the Boston films have a greater sense of place-based specificity about them,’’ said Jay Craven, a professor of film at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont. “New York crime pictures tend to seem more universal or generic. But there is a stronger and in some ways more distinctive cultural strand that comes through in movies about Boston.’’
These days, however, the grit that these movies romanticize and capitalize on exists mostly between the new bricks of renovated buildings. Gentrification has transformed Southie from a staunchly working-class neighborhood into a haven for 20-something young professionals.
“Gangs were very much attached to neighborhoods like Southie, Dorchester and Charlestown, areas that were working class and relatively low-income,’’ said Robert Sampson, a professor of sociology at Harvard University who studies gentrification. “There was a parochial sense of control. But that’s a world gone by now.’’
And yet, there’s still an appetite for films focusing on historical events that harken back to a time when you couldn’t sip on craft cocktails at most bars in Southie, let alone have seven different places to choose from. The working-class neighborhoods depicted in Spotlight where sexual abuse survivors lived weren’t as gentrified in 2001, when the film takes place, as they are now.
Associating certain cities with rather simplistic narratives is pretty common in pop culture, Sampson pointed out. The narratives of cities prevail long after the story’s facts stop being applicable to the present day.
“I think there’s a desire in film in general to create something mythic,’’ Craven said. “And so these films contribute to a Boston mythology.’’
But there’s also something more straightforward at play: profits for the movie industry. Boston’s past offers the perfect backdrop for classic crime dramas. And in Hollywood, crime is a reliable genre that rakes in cash for major film studios.
“Money will tend to aggregate around a bankable genre,’’ Craven said.
These movies allow people who haven’t lived through such dangerous times the voyeuristic thrill of experiencing it for an hour and a half, said John Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University.
“I think a lot of people going to these movies are not people from Southie and aren’t of the old guard,’’ Sampson said. “People who didn’t experience it find it alluring and intriguing in a strange sort of way.’’
The Boston myth these movies celebrate is, after all, rooted in hard truths about this city’s past. In addition to pulling in profits and entertaining people, these films—with some artistic license—preserve the complicated and painful history. Even as the old bricks give way to the salvaged-wood beams of the latest hot new restaurant.
“Now you live in that factory condo and you spend more on wi-fi than rent used to be,’’ Baick said. “That is not something people go to the movies to see. They want to live it, but they don’t want to see it. We are a nation that doesn’t like to think about having classes, so we aim for the middle.’’