With the arrival of Johnny Depp's long-anticipated gangster film Black Mass and his turn as notorious Boston crime boss, FBI informant, and long-time fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger – which is already seeing a steady influx of rave reviews – it only seemed appropriate to create a watch-only guide to use as a primer about the history of the Cosa Nostra, the Irish Mob, and everything in between.

Here is your definitive guide to how to learn about the history of organized crime in America with only a handy-dandy Netflix account.

Inside the American Mob (2013)

As a litmus test for your gauge on Mafia culture, this National Geographic series opens up with an OG (original gangster) named Salvatore Polisi (with the honorific of "Gambino Associate") who proffers an anecdote about how he became embroiled – or more so initiated –- into the '70s Mafia: to prove his worth, he flies to Miami and cuts a guy's testicles off with a Sheffield knife. It's a visceral introduction to "a hidden empire of crime, violence, and money," as the voiceover narrator suggests – and it unpacks both the history and continued significance of the Mafia and its parasitically symbiotic relationship with the FBI with fascinating aplomb.

The conceit of the show is first-hand accounts from various former mafiosos and their cohorts, FBI agents, and police officers, all of whom recount their years in their various professions – legitimate or illegitimate, depending on the circumstances – with an almost surreal, candied nostalgia.

Interwoven with these interviews (whose subjects include former undercover agent Joe Pistone, otherwise known as wiseguy Donnie Brasco, Colombo caporegime (captain) and racketeer-turned-motivational speaker Michael "Yuppie Don" Franzese, and cameos by former NYC mayor Rudy Guiliani), Inside the American Mob technically traces the history of the Italian mob from the early '70s onward, but makes sure to chart key historical touchstones as far back as the foundation of the Cosa Nostra itself, courtesy of syndicate godfather Charles "Lucky" Luciano himself.

But the real meat of the enterprise lies within the interviews; each testimony serves as a tile in a larger mosaic of how integral each of these players were to the rise and fall of Italian organized crime in America, and how everything from the Godfather trilogy to FBI procedural policy wouldn't be the same without it.

 

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (2014)

Besides the Mafia, America's other favorite ethnically-bonded syndicate is the Irish mob, as any fan of Martin Scorcese's Gangs of New York will be sure to point out. Technically older than its Italian counterpart, the Irish mob first appeared on the urban American landscape at the turn of the 19th century, and still makes its home in most major metropoli, most notably Boston; South Boston, in particular, has long been institutionalized as an Irish American Mecca.

It's here where Whitey Bulger emerged in the early '40s, becoming a career criminal at the age of 14, and came into the zenith of his powers as the king of Boston's criminal underbelly, and then went underground in 1994 after receiving word of a pending indictment for racketeering.

A fugitive for almost two decades, Bulger was finally caught after 16 years on the lam. Joe Berlinger's documentary focuses on the long-awaited trial of the convicted murderer, whose official head count was a confirmed 19 killings.

Produced by CNN Films, the documentary spelunks the ways in which Bulger's informant status also engendered governmental corruption of the highest order, but the most affecting component of the film lies with the family members of his myriad victims. Their devastation and emotional survivorship stands as a haunting reminder of what the average moviegoer forgets when he or she watches seminal classics like Goodfellas, Scarface, or The Departed – after the gunsmoke has cleared and the nameless goon, or unlucky sex worker, or the accidental witness has been "taken care of," the ones they leave behind are left to make sense of the cold-blooded aftermath.

 

30 for 30: Playing for the Mob (2014)

It wouldn't be a far stretch to assert that the first lines of Scorcese's Goodfellas – "For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster" – are some of the most indelible in American cinema, uttered by the antihero Henry Hill, portrayed by Ray Liotta. Scorcese's masterpiece is based on the accounts of the real-life former mobster of the Luchesee crime family who entered into the Witness Protection Program in 1980. After 10 years, Hill was expelled from the program for narcotics-related charges.

ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series featured Hill as the subject of an episode, and it fixated on his involvement in rigging the Boston College basketball seasons in both 1978 and 1979, enlisting (and sometimes threatening) players to point-shave.

It's an almost comical juxtaposition – gangsters aren't necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of March Madness – but the point-shaving scandal serves as a nexus for the way the mob could assert such sudden control over the lives of ordinary people.

Hill isn't the sole star in the episode (there's a cast of former team players and other associates interviewed), but his charismatic and cavalier demeanor harken back to what the gangster would've been like in his glory years, a thought made even more haunting by Hill's death in 2012, soon after the documentary aired.

 

Serpico (1973)

Sidney Lumet's Serpico isn't a mob movie, per se – that is, if you qualify a mob movie as being told from a perspective that champions the Mafia as protagonists, antiheroes, or in the least as sympathetic characters who we as viewers use as narrative stand-ins.

But for many of us, Al Pacino's titular character is the closest authentic thing most of us can use to close that fictive gap; at the onset of the movie, an undercover cop is privy to the moral standards that most of us on the "right" side of the law agree upon. After witnessing multitudinous forms of corruption, something within the heart of undercover cop Frank Serpico begins to shift; an animosity toward the instituted arm of the law in its corruptive state develops, and he begins to trust only in his own moral code – which, in the end, is exactly the same way that a mobster operates.

In short: Serpico ends up being a movie entirely about the mob without actually overtly being about the mob, and an education in the psychological structure of a gangster.

 

Gangland Collection (2007-2010)

The History Channel's Gangland series ran from 2007 to 2010, but in that time they managed to pack in 10 seasons worth of 47-minute episodes exploring different pockets of gang life, from the Aryan Brotherhood to the Mexican Mafia to the Hells Angels to the Bloods and the Crips. Collectively, this diverse patchwork of contemporary organized crime is the direct descent of mob institutions like the Cosa Nostra.

Urban, POC (people of color) gangs exemplify this influence by the worship of mobsters like Al Capone and Pacino's depiction of Tony Montana in Brian de Palma's Scarface, cemented in iconography (for example, Scarface T-shirts) and canonized in lyrics by legendary rap artists like Nas, and other artists who frequently depicted (or currently depict) gang life in the gangsta rap subgenre.

An especially notable Gangland episode, titled "From Girl to Gangster," revolves around the lives of female gangsters, specifically lady Crips; it's hard not to link the lack of female visibility in both actual gang and mob history after watching it, emphasizing how little the stories of female gangsters, Mafia wives, and mob daughters are told.

 

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