Greetings again from the darkness. Even those of us who aren’t “Southies” know the name James “Whitey” Bulger. Johnny Depp portrayed him in BLACK MASS (2015) and Jack Nicholson’s character was inspired by him in THE DEPARTED (2006). Of course, that’s just cinema taking the legend and running with it. In the real world, we recall seeing the televised clips of the FBI capturing Bulger in California in 2011, after 16 years on the lam and being a fixture on the FBI’s Most Wanted list … and then seeing the reports of his being beaten to death at age 89 in a West Virginia prison mere hours after his transfer. Very suspicious – but who weeps for the mobster? Well, documentarian Brendan J Byrne offers some insight. It turns out, even mobsters have brothers and sisters and kin folk.
It’s the family … one brother in particular … that is the focus of this documentary. Whitey’s younger brother Bill, was the President of the Massachusetts Senate for 18 years, after which he became President of the University of Massachusetts. To hear multiple people, including two former Governors describe Bill Bulger as principled and smart is a bit disconcerting. Is it possible for one family to have a brother so devoted to public service and another brother who is a criminal mastermind that murders people? It’s beyond debate that Bill Bulger was an enormously popular politician. However, the question remains – and will likely never be answered – is whether Bill was able to keep his political decisions separate from his brother.
The film begins with a family photo and we learn the faces and names of the Bulger clan, some who are interviewed in this film. When family loyalty is discussed, one says it shouldn’t be tossed aside because one falters. Most of us would likely consider Whitey’s criminal record as more extreme than a misstep or faltering, but the point is one to which most of us can relate.
Bill Bulger, now 87 years old, and his wife Mary have been married for more than 60 years. They have 9 children and 33 grandchildren. Many of the kids participated in the film hoping to salvage the family legacy created by Bill as opposed to the more headline-grabbing exploits of Whitey, described as “just another Uncle”. In addition to family members, interviews are conducted with Catherine Greig, Whitey’s longtime partner (she was captured with him in California, and served her own prison sentence), a juror from Whitey’s trial, a journalist and author – where the difference between Bill and Whitey is described as visible versus invisible, and former Massachusetts Governors Michael Dukakis and Bill Weld, both of whom had their own candidacies for President of the United States. These two men speak highly of Bill’s character and political astuteness, despite his ongoing rivalry with “The Boston Globe”.
Bill is now retired and living a quiet life. There are still those in the family who claim his brother Whitey is “not the monster he was made out to be”, although Bill’s public statements seem to infer otherwise. Whitey’s former Winter Hill Gang members were shocked at allegations that he had been an FBI informant, and the “Where’s Whitey” manhunt is one that will likely be studied for years to come. Filmmaker Byrne does seem to have success in making the case that South Boston loyalty can co-exist with a family split by the polarized work of two members – brothers Bill and Whitey. It’s quite fascinating to see how these contrasting elements fit together.
Exclusively on Discover+ beginning June 17, 2021