Money, Power, Respect: Scarface as Heroic Icon

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON ASSOCIATEDCONTENT.COM AUGUST 8, 2005

This article was referenced by Ken Tucker in his book Scarface Nation, available from Amazon.

You may not have noticed, but a new heroic icon is showing up and more and more in the hallways of American high schools. Actually, the figure himself isn’t new but his status as hero to youth-particularly black male youth-is certainly a change, a change that has only begun to make it into the mainstream of fashion in the past year or two.

I am speaking of Tony Montana, the incestuous killer/drug lord/wife beater played by Al Pacino in the movie Scarface. This charming character has been appearing more and more often and in more and more different guises on clothing marketed to young black males in the past few years. And I’m not talking about cheapo T-shirts iron-ons, I mean on expensive oversized polyester shirts. As well as T-shirts and hooded jackets and jerseys and just about any other kind of clothing you can imagine.

In addition to silkscreen printings of recreations of scenes from the movie, these shirts also often carry quotes such as the famous “Say hello to my little friend,” as well as the less famous “I bury those cockroaches,” and, of course, Tony’s motto

“Money, Power, Respect.”

Money. Power. Respect. What I want, what you want, what the disenfranchised black youth of America most certainly want. What American makes you want and promises you can get.

I was an English teacher at a high school last year and I have to admit at first I was dismayed by this elevation of a minor 80’s movie character to the lofty status shared by few. Trust me, very few white people outside of music stars ever make it to the point where they show up on a very large minority of clothing worn by African-American teens. In fact, outside of Tony Montana and Eminem I can’t think of any other single white person I would see on more than two shirts in any given day. Like I say, I was a little disturbed by the image of this character as a hero. And not just an antihero, not just somebody we know does wrong but for the right reason. This guy does wrong for the wrong reasons.

Or does he?

What does this guy sell drugs and kill people for? Money. Power. Respect. Exactly for all the reasons that these kids are supposed to be in school learning all the things they are learning. So they can be prepared to go out into the world and become good little capitalists and buy things they don’t need in order to get respect from people who are impressed by things like fancy spinners on their big ugly Hummers. It got me to thinking. Who are the respectable heroes of today? Who are the heroes that people who are absolutely disgusted by the idea of Tony Montana being a hero? Who has the most money, power and respect in America?

Let me ask a hypothetical. Suppose a guy came across an idea for a new toilet and was successful in marketing that toilet to 90% of the country. And suppose that toilet broke in some way-a way that could be fixed quickly so it would work next time-once a week, or at least once a month. The toilet wouldn’t so much be broken as it just wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t flush. Once a week or a few times a month. Do you suppose that guy could ever hope to become a superbillionaire?

And let’s take it a step further. This guy didn’t even invent this new toilet. In fact, he pretty much could be accused of stealing it. Or, rather, paying the guy who did invent it a ridiculously paltry sum. And then a few years later he saw something that would make this toilet even better and he just copied it without permission. But it still wouldn’t work a month without breaking. I ask you, is there any way in heck this guy could ever become rich and influential and powerful and respected?

Ask Bill Gates.

Okay, another hypothetical. Let’s say there’s this C student. He’s not the worst student in the world, not completely stupid, but he’s just not quite up the standards of academic excellence we really expect from someone who wants to get into an Ivy League school. He’s also certainly not a good enough athlete to get a college scholarship. He’s an average C student. And yet he manages to get into Yale. And while there he makes absolutely no improvement in his grades. He doesn’t stand out as anything except for his ability to knock back drinks at frat parties. He’s the king of the frat party, in fact.

Now we certainly wouldn’t expect this guy to rise to the heights of money, power and respect would we? Once he graduates college he manages to run every business he becomes involved with either into the ground completely or to leave it in much worse shape than when he arrived. He’s got money because he inherited it, but still not much power and even less respect.

This guy is not much more deserving of being on a shirt than Tony Montana is he? I mean all he’s really got on the guy is that he doesn’t have blood on his hands and he hasn’t committed a series of criminal acts. Heck, that recommendation is apparently good enough to get him elected President. And now he’s deserving of power and respect. And now he’s got more blood on his hands than Tony Montana and has committed more criminal acts than Tony Montana.

I hope you can now see why I’ve changed my mind about how disturbing it is for young black males in this country to merely wear the image of a movie hood on their clothing when other people are investing money in the subpar products of Bill Gates and taking to the streets to embrace George W. Bush is one of the ten greatest Americans of all time.