So last week I got a bit into the life and work of Malcolm X. I’m going to be referring to him more as we go on, but for this week I wanted to throw a bit more of a light-hearted example into the equation. That’s why today we’re going to be looking at Cyrus’ opening speech from the 1979 movie ‘The Warriors.’
This cult classic late-70s film basically features a fictional New York City overrun by cartoonish gangs who stand on the cusp of being united under a charismatic leader named Cyrus. At a crucial rally, in which representatives from all the gangs gather to hear their leader speak, a rogue gang member (from a gang aptly named the Rogues) shoots Cyrus just as the police show up to raid the place.
The Warriors are blamed for the assassination (and presumably, the police raid) and must now fight their way back to their home turf through the streets and on the trains trains of New York City.
Okay, so as a movie The Warriors is a mixed bag. On one hand, the Warriors are an inter-racial gang in which black and hispanic members (initially) outnumber the white members and everyone is treated equally. This was pretty ground breaking for 1979. Add to that the fact that Cyrus’ gang – the Gramercy Riffs – is an all-black organization that is both the largest and most disciplined in the City.
It is well paced and directed, with a bright and colourful costume pallet to contrast the drab, dilapidated settings. The story takes place in a New York City virtually devoid of civilians, where the gangs and the police fight for supremacy in a vacuum that allows the characters to be judged by their own standards. It has scenes that are downright surreal to watch, but weaves everything together into a fictional world where all of this makes sense.
It’s also a film in which sexual assault is normalized, homophobic slurs are common, and even the ‘strong’ female character is essentially looking to attach herself to a strong man. And as much as it’s groundbreaking to have an inter-racial gang in the 70s, there’s no getting around the fact that this movie has non-natives dressing up in exaggerated Native American costumes and outfits.
So it’s more than fair to call this film problematic. The scene I wanted to focus on comes right at the beginning of the movie, so it’s still something you can check out if you don’t want to endure the entire film. A rather poor quality YouTube clip can be viewed here.
In the beginning, the gangs (in hyper technicolour 1970s gang outfits) are operating under a truce. Each gang has been invited to send nine members as emissaries to a meeting with the leader of the Gramercy Riffs, a charismatic man named Cyrus.1
So the gangs have all gathered at a New York city park at night, waiting to see if Cyrus will be the leader they all hope he might be. This is the speech he greets them with:
“Can you count, suckers?!”
“I say the future is ours…if you…can count!”
[Sporadic cheering, shouts of encouragement.]
“Now look at what we have here before us: We have the Sarrassins…sitting next to the Jones Street Boys! We got the Moonrunners right by the Van Cortland Rangers! Nobody is wasting nobody. THAT is a miracle…and miracles is the way things ought to be!
“You’re standing right now with nine delegates from a hundred gangs…and there’s over a hundred more! That’s twenty thousand hard core members! Forty thousand counting affiliates, and twenty more not organized, but ready to fight! Sixty thousand soldiers…
…Now there ain’t but twenty thousand police in the whole town! Can you dig it?
Can you dig it?!
Now here’s the sum total: One gang could run this city. One gang. Nothing would move without us allowing it to happen. We tax the crime syndicates, we tax the police…because we got the streets suckers!
Can you dig it?
The problem in the past has been the Man turning us against one another. We have been unable to see that truth because we have been fighting for ten square feet of ground! Our turf…our little piece of turf…That’s crap brothers! The turf is ours by right! Because it’s our turn. All we have to do…is keep up the general truce. Take over one borrough at a time. Secure our territory! Secure our turf!
Because…it’s all…OUR TURF!
At this point Cyrus gets shot by mullet-putz Luther (David Patrick Kelly) from the Rogues gang, and the main plot line of the story begins.
So, as I transcribed it, the speech is barely 250 words long, but look at what we have here before us: Compared to what Bland gave us from Molly Grace, this speech is not just a lot more dramatic, but it gets a lot more done in a much shorter time.
“Can you count, suckers!” Right off the bat, here’s a hook. Something that will catch the audience’s attention. The air is thick with tension, and this is the first thing he says? He’s got their attention.
“Now look at what we have here…” From there, he starts pointing members of the audience. He recognizes instantly who’s out there. Not only does he recognize them but he knows them well enough to point out that they’re standing next to their enemies right now. By establishing this familiarity with a few, he reinforces his credibility with the whole. All politics is local and he is one of them, through and through.
“That is a miracle! And miracles is the the way things ought to be!” Well yeah, it is. In preparation for this meeting Cyrus had spent weeks brokering a temporary truce between all the gangs of New York. Just this fact alone must have required a tremendous effort. This line achieves two things: First is that it reinforces the truce by giving the assembled gang members a sense of achievement and second is that it reinforces Cyrus’ standing amongst the gang leaders. After all, he’s the one who brokered this truce in the first place. The gang representatives feel good about themselves, and that feeling is directly tied into having done what Cyrus wanted them to do.
“You’re standing here with nine delegates…” So far Cyrus has hooked them with his first sentence, established his credibility and reinforced the truce. Now he gets down to the nitty gritty details. Even here, he’s keeping things simple. Take what you know (nine delegates per gang), extrapolate from there. Move outwards using simple round numbers, exaggerate slightly but not by too much that someone might call bullshit. The crowd’s already thanking you for their achievement in the truce, now’s the time to make them feel powerful.
“Now there ain’t but twenty thousand police in this whole town!” Make a crazy idea sound simple. Obviously there’s going to be all kind set backs and problems, even under the best of circumstances. Even if all of Cyrus’ numbers bear out, a three to one advantage isn’t going to be absolute. But that’s not the point. The point is to make them think it’s possible. Shatter the illusion that the police are unstoppable. Make them see that it’s possible and you’re halfway to getting started.
“Can you dig it?” Simple, and straight to the point. A slogan that’s halfway between a challenge and an affirmation. Yeah, there’s been better, but you could do a lot worse.
“Now here’s the sum total…” Now after everybody’s fired up, Cyrus can lay out the plan. It’s obvious to anyone who’s thought about it for a moment that he’s talking about one gang controlled by the Gramercy Riffs with him at their leader. If he’s started with this, then he might have lost his crowd within the first few seconds. That’s why he established his credentials and hyped up the truce before hand. “Can you dig it?” isn’t just his slogan, it’s an implied contract as well.
Can you dig it? he asks. With me as your leader? is the unspoken rider.
It’s also a neat point that this is the first (possibly the only) mention of some non-specified crime syndicates that they would be taxing alongside the police. He’s not tallying up their numbers but by including them here he’s lumping them in with the (natural) enemy of the police.
“The problem in the past…” Here Cyrus is both minimizing previous conflicts between the gangs (in order to reinforce the truce) as well as assigning blame on ‘the Man.’ If you were fighting the other gangs, it’s only because some non-specified ‘Man’ was tricking you into it. Whatever grudge you might hold against the other gangs isn’t as important as that. But…if you join with Cyrus, you’ll get even more turf! All the turf you could want!
Cyrus minimizes the gangs’ fight over turf (to make it easier for the gangs to eventually join together) while at the same time declaring turf to be the most important thing out there. A nice little bit of doublespeak which doesn’t hold under scrutiny but here manages to drift in unnoticed along with the hype. They shouldn’t fight each other over a bit of it, but instead fight the police for all of it (under Cyrus).
“Can you dig it?”
As I mentioned before, this movie, for all its over the top campiness, does present a more realistic scenario for a unified super-gang than Bland does. The kind of criminal organization that is violent enough to openly confront the police is going to be the kind of group that attracts unstable personalities. People that are difficult to recruit and motivate, and who can’t necessarily be trusted.
Bland is presenting his pan-Canadian AOC (Aboriginal Organized Crime) as a fait accomplit, without any further details. This ignores the fact that not only are criminal organizations under constant pressure from police surveillance, but all these violent, unstable members are exactly the sort of people that law enforcement would zero in on for exploitation. Not being able to account for x-factors like this leaves a huge blind spot for any serious rebel movement.
Like it or not, but in real life Luther the mullet-putz could be our greatest asset.
***All images are from Paramount Pictures’ The Warriors (1979), taken from the 2017 DVD release.***
1 For those not familiar with it, the story line is based off of the Anabasis, the history of Xenophon, and the 10,000 Greeks’ escape from Persia.