BOSTON (AP) — On the streets of South Boston, where the name Whitey Bulger once evoked fear, the locals have become accustomed to books and movies that try to capture the life of the notorious gangster.
With the release of a new biopic, “Black Mass,” set for Sept. 18, anticipation is building in South Boston, where James “Whitey” Bulger rose from a childhood in public housing to the leader of a multimillion dollar criminal enterprise of drugs, extortion and money-laundering that was responsible for numerous murders.
“I want to go see it,” said Karen Gleason, 65, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood often called Southie, where Bulger’s Irish-American Winter Hill Gang held power.
“I think the original South Boston people will go see it, but I don’t know about anyone else. There’s a lot of diversity here now,” Gleason said, referring to changing demographics that have turned the once working-class neighborhood into an up-and-coming hip area for young professionals.
“Black Mass,” starring Johnny Depp as Bulger, is the latest of more than a dozen books and movies to tell his story, including the 2006 film “The Departed,” in which Jack Nicholson’s character was loosely based on Bulger.
His story continues to fascinate.
Nicknamed “Whitey” for the shock of white-blond hair he had as a child, Bulger, now 86, became the city’s most feared gangster, ruling its underworld from the 1970s into the 1990s while simultaneously working with the FBI as an informant on the New England Mafia, his gang’s main rival. His brother, William Bulger, became one of the state’s most powerful politicians, serving as president of the Senate from 1978 to 1996.
Whitey Bulger fled Boston in 1994 after being tipped off by his FBI handler, John Connolly Jr., that he was about to be indicted.
He was a fugitive for more than 16 years before he was finally captured in 2011 in Santa Monica, California, with his longtime girlfriend, living in a rent-controlled apartment with guns and more than $800,000 in cash stuffed inside the walls.
After a sensational federal trial in 2013, Bulger was convicted of participating in 11 murders and a litany of other crimes. He is now serving a life sentence.
“Black Mass,” based on a book written by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, also stars Benedict Cumberbatch as William Bulger and Joel Edgerton as Connolly.
In the film’s trailers, an intense Depp is shown beating, strangling and shooting his victims. But one scene shows a gentler side of Bulger, as he talks on a sidewalk with an old woman who asks him how long he’s been out of prison.
“It’s wonderful to have you back in the neighborhood, son,” the woman says, reflecting an image some had of Bulger as a harmless crook who kept drugs out of South Boston — a notion debunked during his 2013 trial.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly, who prosecuted Bulger, said he hopes the film doesn’t glamorize Bulger or downplay the FBI’s role in protecting him.
“I hope it shows his evil nature and shows the public corruption that permitted his gang to flourish unchecked for many years,” Kelly said. “It’s an essential part of the story.”
Retired state police Maj. Tom Duffy, one of the lead investigators, said he was skeptical about how the FBI will be portrayed.
“I think it would be a grave injustice if they glorify this whole episode in Boston history just to satisfy the movie-going public,” he said.
O’Neill said the film is a realistic portrayal of Bulger and his relationship with the FBI, particularly Connolly, who is now serving a 40-year prison term for second-degree murder for leaking information to Bulger that prompted him to order the killing of a Boston businessman.
“It’s faithful to the book,” O’Neill said “I thought (Depp) nailed it. It was very accurate.”
The movie had its world premiere Friday in Venice. Special screenings are also planned in Toronto on Sept. 14 and Boston on Sept. 15.
Some younger Southie residents know little or nothing about Bulger and won’t be flocking to theaters.
“I’ve heard his name, maybe once,” said Brittney Mante, 24, a technology consultant who’s lived in the neighborhood for two years. “I would probably watch it if it comes out on DVD or Netflix.”
Feelings are stronger among some family members of Bulger’s alleged victims, including Steve Davis, whose 26-year-old sister, Debra, was killed in 1981.
Prosecutors charged Bulger in her slaying, but the jury at his racketeering trial was unable to reach a verdict in her death.
“I wouldn’t pay to see it … I think the movie is glorifying him,” Davis said. “We all know what this guy was about, what this guy did.”
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