Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger’s murderous life of crime is only half of the saga chronicled in “My Name Is Bulger,” premiering Thursday (June 17) on discovery+.
The other half of Brendan J. Byrne’s documentary turns the spotlight on Whitey’s younger brother, William “Billy” Bulger, 87, a lifelong Massachusetts politician and hometown hero whose civic achievements — and, later, his role as president of the University of Massachusetts — were eclipsed and finally derailed by his infamous brother. “There’s a false narrative about my family,” says William’s son, James. “We cannot win…I think it’s time to knock it down — at least to throw a punch back.”
The 90-minute documentary does its best to counter-punch Whitey’s life of crime by delving into William’s life. Byrne interweaves interviews with William, his wife Mary and several of their nine children with old home movies and family photos to track William’s rise from South Boston to the heights of state politics (he was president of the Massachusetts State Senate from 1978-96).
Yet the specter of Whitey is always at the periphery as he floats in and out of his brother’s life, playing the loving uncle on his rare visits (there are photos of him with his nephews and nieces) while leading a life that no one in the family seemed to know about. “He was one more uncle who came through the door,” says William’s son, Dan. “He had big muscles and yelled a lot.” One of Whitey’s sisters sums him up thusly: “He was always gone. No one knew what-the-heck he was doing…he was always a worry.”
Whitey, it turned out, was terrorizing his South Boston stomping grounds, trafficking in drugs, extortion and murder (he was later convicted of 11 killings) but, according to family members, was “careful not to embarrass” William. “He was proud of his brother,” says Whitey’s former henchman, Kevin Weeks, adding that Whitey only killed someone as a last resort. “Violence was his last option,” he says. “There was no changing his mind once he decided to kill someone.”
“My Name Is Bulger” draws a strict line of demarcation: William knew nothing about Whitey’s life outside of the extended Bulger family as he rose steadily in the political world after winning his first race in 1960, when he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and, as his power grew, rubbed shoulders with everyone, including governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld. They’re both interviewed here and both sing William’s praises, and as the documentary progresses, it’s easy to see why. He fought hard for his constituents, has a great sense of humor and is a devoted family man to his wife, children and 33 grandchildren.
Contrast that with Whitey, who made national headlines in 1995 when he went on lam with longtime companion Catherine Greig and wasn’t caught until 16 years later — hiding in plain sight in Santa Monica, Calif. with $882,000 in cash stuffed into the walls of his apartment. He was tried and convicted of murder, extortion and racketeering and, in 2018, was killed in prison at the age of 89.
Greig, who spent eight years in prison, is interviewed for the documentary and offers often-teary insight into Whitey’s private life (“he was a very kind, giving person”) for those who are the least-bit interested in how a convicted killer stopped to help fix a flat tire on a Volkswagen or was nice to the maintenance staff in his apartment building. That kind of thing.
William was appointed president of the University of Massachusetts in 1985 and was forced out eight years later by then-Gov. Mitt Romney after admitting to a Congressional committee, in part, that that he had spoken to Whitey in 1995 and had failed to alert the authorities. (He was granted immunity from being prosecuted for obstruction of justice.)
“My Name Is Bulger” offers an even-handed account of the Brothers Bulger, covering all their personal and professional bases and giving the family a chance to remove part of the stain from the Bulger name.