In Depth

Whitey Bulger: who was the real Black Mass gangster?

Johnny Depp stars in new biopic of Boston's Winter Hill gangster, who evaded capture for 16 years

Johnny Depp's latest film Black Mass, in which he portrays the notorious Boston gangster James 'Whitey' Bulger, has hit cinemas in the US. However, it is already facing criticism that it is not true to life.

It was only two years ago that the real Whitey, now 86, was found guilty of 11 murders, as well as several other crimes such as racketeering, extortion and conspiracy, which took place in the 1970s and 1980s during gang wars in Boston.

He was captured in southern California in 2011 after 16 years on the run and with a $2m bounty on his head – the largest reward ever offered for a domestic fugitive. He is now serving two consecutive life sentences behind bars.

(Below is the real James 'Whitey' Bulger as pictured on an FBI ten most wanted fugitives poster. The left and centre photographs were taken in 1994, the right one was altered in 2000 as agents attempted to track him down.)

Whitey, who is also said to be the inspiration behind the 2006 Oscar-winning film The Departed, was a member of the Winter Hill Gang, which took control of the city's underworld.

According to the New York Times, some of his victims were bound in chains and shot at close range after hours of interrogation, while others were "felled in a hail of bullets". He was even convicted of strangling one woman with his bare hands – a charge he vehemently denied, saying that murdering a woman violated his moral code.

It was alleged in court that he and his gang paid off several FBI agents and police officers for inside information – claims that he also denied. Nevertheless, it was said to be a tip-off from an FBI agent that prompted him to disappear in 1995.

His criminal career and subsequent vanishing act captivated Boston and beyond, especially as one of his five siblings, William 'Billy' Bulger, rose to become president of the state Senate. In Black Mass, William is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton plays FBI agent John Connolly, while Out Of The Furnace director Scott Cooper is at the helm.

Whitey's former right-hand man, Kevin Weeks, has described the film as "pure fiction", telling the Daily Beast: "We really did kill those people. But the movie is a fantasy."

Weeks, who is played by Breaking Bad's Jesse Plemons in the movie, complained that he was made to look like a "knuckle-dragging moron", while the only resemblance between Whitey and Depp's portrayal "was the hairline".

He said Whitey never yelled or swore at his associates, especially those who were easily capable of responding with violence. Weeks also denied that Whitey was a "doting father" or that he ever brought "business" back into their family homes.

One fictional plot line appears to be that FBI agent Connolly reached out to Whitey through his brother Billy. According to the New Yorker, one of Whitey's conditions for liaising with Connolly was that his brother would never know.

In the Boston Herald, Doug 'VB' Goudie says Black Mass includes all of the Whitey myths that Whitey loved, from the illusion that he kept drugs out of South Boston to the idea that there was "something other than Whitey that made Whitey evil".

Goudie says he actually loved the movie, but the "big problem" is that "if Whitey were to ever see it, he'd love it, too".

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