I’ve reached a time in my life where I must be honest. And since honesty begins with us, I have a confession to make. For the last twenty-five years or so, I’ve been in a polygamous relationship. My dad introduced me to my first
love, history, Malcolm X posthumously introduced me to my second love, politics, and America herself introduced me to my third love interest, popular culture. Everything I think, write and speak about is somehow colored by these considerations in varying degrees, and perhaps I’m too weak to let any of them go.
Yet my intellectual infidelities all come to bear on the upcoming Presidential election. I have written and debated the issue of what true politics is and what it is supposed to produce; I have drawn from my knowledge of history and politics to argue that party politics is not the only game in town (especially on the national level) and that Black people have traditionally used protest, grassroots organizing, journalism, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship far more frequently and successfully than voting to advance and protect our interests. It appears those two loves have exhausted their usefulness, so I now look to popular culture for answers and direction. Here, I will share with you the political lessons I’ve learned not from books, not from documentaries but from the quintessential gangster film “The Godfather” (view the trailers for part I and Part II).
While this movie is considered one of the all-time great gangster movies replete with violence, extortion, blackmailing, and the like, it nevertheless teaches us about political power which I will define here as “The ability to meet objectives, secure goods, services, and support for one’s constituents, and to protect and advance one’s interests regardless of opposition.” In brilliant fashion, “The Godfather” demonstrates how various immigrant/ethnic groups in America (The Italians, Jews, and Irish immediately come to mind) amassed such power, with or without a president of their own in office and with arguably little voting power. To do this, I direct your attention to three moments taken from the first two movies of the famed gangster trilogy.
Scene 1: Mr. Woltz
In the first installment of The Godfather, Italian singer and actor Johnny Fontaine comes to Vito Corleone asking a favor. There is a new movie coming out and Johnny eyes a role which he believes will revive his career. Unfortunately, the powerful Hollywood producer Jack Woltz refuses to consider Johnny for the part. The powerful Godfather (played by Marlon Brando) assures Johnny that his wish will be granted because he will “make him an offer he can’t refuse.” After vehemently rejecting Corleone’s request, Jack Woltz wakes up in his bed covered with blood. He pulls the sheets back to find the severed head of his prized $600,000 race horse! Needless to say, Johnny Fontaine gets the part.
Scene 2: Nevada U.S. Senator Pat Geary
In the second installment of the Godfather trilogy, the new Godfather Michael Corleone (played by Al Pachino) meets with corrupt Nevada Senator Pat Geary to obtain a gaming license for a new casino he wants to build. Unimpressed by the Corleone’s power, the senator demands an exorbitant $200,000 for the license and a monthly payment consisting of 5% of what all four Corleone hotels gross. Michael calmly asks why on earth he should pay 10 times what the license actually costs, and the senator goes into an anti-Italian rant:
Later in the movie the bigoted senator awakens in a Corleone-owned hotel with a dead, bloodied prostitute laying next to him. He does not remember killing her, feels ashamed, and fears the repercussions of this story reaching the newspapers and his wife. Unbeknownst to him, a Corleone hitman killed the woman. Tom Hagen, the mob family attorney calmly reassures the senator that the Corleones can handle the situation IF he agrees to be their “friend.” Later in the movie, Michael Corleone sits before a senate congressional hearing seeking to have him admit to his mob ties and activities. After Michael (falsely) proclaims his innocence, guess who stands up to defend the honor of Corleone and all Italians? Senator Geary does!
Interesting change of opinion, huh?
Scene 3: Signora Colombo
Also in the second Godfather movie we learn about Signora Colombo, a poor widowed woman with no one to support her financially. Her landlord has threatened to kick her out of his building because she has been late with rent and has purchased a little dog for companionship which goes against building rules. A young Vito Corleone (played by Robert DeNiro) attempts to reason with the landlord and even gives him money to cover several months of the widow’s rent if the landlord will allow her to keep her apartment and dog. The landlord flatly refuses and threatens the young Godfather. Later that day, after learning who Vito Corleone is, the landlord comes back, agrees to let the widow stay and keep her dog, and essentially allows her to live almost rent free!
In conclusion, I am certainly not suggesting that Black people form a mob-like syndicate using violence and threats of violence to advance themselves. However, the metaphorical lesson is clear, and it is a lesson that Brother Malcolm X expounded on in his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech. The Corleone family (and real-life families or institutions like them ) influence the decisions of Hollywood, landlords, senators and many more without casting a ballot or having a “sympathetic” president in the White House. Politics involves power – the power to get the goods, services, treatment, opportunities, protection and outcomes you want for your people, despite opposition. People in power are not moved by appeals to morality and ethics. Powerful people and institutions simply do not speak this language. Their language is one of money, influence, image, property and self-interest.
What certain other groups have learned (which seems to be lost on us) is that empowerment comes from building strong independent bases of power and wielding the power to protect or threaten the money, influence, image, property, safety and self-interests of the ruling elite. Without such power, we are simply barking into the wind. When Black people learn this lesson and implement it in an organized and collective manner, it won’t matter who the president is or what party is in power. We will have amassed the power and influence to have them do our bidding! Don’t believe me? Check out President Obama speaking to the powerful Jewish lobbying group AIPAC and see what I mean. The power lies not in a ballot, political party or political official, but in the organized strength and independent power of the people!
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. Learn more about Agyei by visiting his website.
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