Friday, March 20, 2009

The Corleone Family of Kansas City

Shot point blank in the head six times.

That was typically how people died if they messed with the Kansas City Mafia.

That's right, the Kansas City Mafia, who ruled this town for more than 50 years.

While the term Mafia probably conjures images of New York gangsters and episodes of "The Sopranos," maybe images of Southwest Boulevard and the River Market would be more appropriate.

A tyrannical organization led by hard-boiled Italians, the Mafia dominated everything from beer to the political machine.

Even Harry S. Truman, our 33rd president, was ushered into the Senate with a little help from the mob.

A brand new local documentary "Black Hand Strawman" covers the history of the Kansas City gangsters in full detail.

Directed and produced by Terence O'Malley, the film opens at the Screenland Theatre on Friday, March 20th - the 37th anniversary of the release of "The Godfather," an ironic date due to the fact the Mafia bought out entire theaters for that night in 1972 to prevent audiences from seeing it.

The Mafia thought it was "misrepresentative" of Italian culture.

What wasn't misrepresentative was O'Malley's film, which is full of information about the lives of the people involved with the Mafia.

The documentary covers the humble beginnings of the mob, when they were deemed "The Black Hand."

Back in 1912, the Black Hand was comprised of a small group of people from Kansas City's Little Italy, now recognized as Columbus Park, who occasionally shot at or threw bombs at enemies - usually people who were doing well financially.

If you got a threatening note on your front door with a scrawled-out drawing of a dagger dripping blood, you knew you were in trouble.

It was only later that members of the Black Hand became more organized and informally assumed the name of Mafia, which according to O'Malley, is actually an Italian acronym for Morte Alla Francia Italia Anelia!, or "Death to the French is Italy's Cry!"

"It occurred to me that nobody had ever given a serious treatment of K.C. organized crime on film before," O'Malley said. "I have always been drawn to storytelling, and have a very real sense of what the Italian culture is all about. That's why I made this film."

The documentary proceeds like a long list of Santa's wicked children.

Murder after murder ensues as O'Malley weaves together an intricate story of men like Joe "Scarface" DiGiovani who earned his name from a huge scar on his face inflicted by an explosion and Solly Weisman, a huge man who packed four revolvers and a switchblade at all times.

"Black Hand Strawman" covers nationally-recognized events such as the Union Station Massacre, or the Kansas City Massacre, of June 1933.

UMKC's own professor of Communications Studies Robert Unger was featured in the film speaking about the event, which he wrote a book about, titled "The Union Station Massacre: The Original Sin of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI."

"His book is the definitive source on the subject because he breaks the event down to such detail that the truth of what happened is revealed," O'Malley said.

Beyond the inclusion of UMKC faculty within the film, the director feels that UMKC students can connect directly with the subject.

"In many ways the history of organized crime in Kansas City tells the story of Kansas City in general," he said. "Organized crime is a reflection of the times, the culture, the community, the music and the politics of the day. UMKC students will walk away with an appreciation of this town's history they could never have had before."

Indeed, the film presents an astounding number of photographs taken throughout Kansas City's history.

Not only will the mug shots of criminals appear on screen, but also events such as the construction of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

While it may not have the technical resolution of "The Godfather," "Black Hand Strawman" has more heart in many ways.

It's the true tales of Kansas City's own people.

It's tales of the good times of the rise of the Kansas City jazz scene. And it's tales of the bad times of the death threats and street shootouts.

Fill some of your free time and see this film if you want to see the truth in the aptly named "Killer City" at the Screenland Crossroads, 1656 Washington St. Kansas City, Mo. 64108.

Just make sure to arrive early to score a seat in the row of red recliners.

Thanks to Corey Light

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